Navigation Aids

Rare Book & Manuscript Library


Main Content

World's Greatest Photographer

To the question--"Who do you think is the world's greatest photographer?"--essayist Roland Barthes responded: "Nadar." In the history of French photography of the nineteenth century, there are few who rival the creativity and popularity of the writer/publisher/caricaturist turned photographer. Through the alliances of the Philadelphia-born dentist, Thomas W. Evans, Penn's Rare Book & Manuscript Library holds a marvelous token of Nadar's distinguished career: a sign-in album of individuals who sat for either their drawn or photographic portrait.

In his Parisian studio Nadar placed large oblong albums of blank paper. These volumes were not simply ordinary ledgers of transactions but rather repositories for exemplary mementos from the writers, artists, musicians, and other dignitaries who had their image taken by Nadar. Honoré Daumier left two sketches, one of which depicts the vice in which sitters placed their heads so as not to move during the long exposure times.

The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote one of the most famous diatribes against the art of photography in his review of the Salon of 1859. It was the first time photographs were exhibited at the Salon, and Baudelaire was on the attack.

A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: "Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing": From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers.
So decries Baudelaire in his Salon review, yet he goes to his friend Nadar for a photograph of himself and copies out his poem, "Le Reniement de Saint Pierre," in the guest album.

Thomas Evans was the court dentist to Napoléon III, Emperor of France, and became a celebrated member of the social elite--both aristocratic and belletristic--of fin de siécle Europe. He established confidences with many of the crowned heads of Europe and kept company with such cultural luminaries as Edouard Manet and Stéphane Mallarmé. His star quality, perhaps more so than his professional ability, served to improve considerably the European perception of dental medicine and made him the recipient of many gifts, including Nadar's sign-in album.

To see the complete manuscript, request Ms. Coll. 21 in the reading room of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

"Le Reniement de Saint Pierre" by Charles Baudelaire

Ink drawing of Nadar by Jean Gigoux

Previous stories:

Pictures in Letters

How to Fake a Pearl

Lunacy on the High Seas

Who are you?

Frank L. Wright's Paternal Family

An Uncommon Place

At Sea

Mad Man Turned Publisher

The French West Africa Gold Rush

Paris de nuit

The Model Republic

Practical Magic

Mirror! Mirror! ... in my book?