The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
In response to our recent Flickr Commons set highlighting women in science, Erin, our colleague from Smithsonian Libraries, did some deeper digging into one of the portraits in the mostly male Portraits of Scientists and Inventors set. Nadar's portrait above is wonderfully fanciful in comparison to some of the more staid portraits of these scientists.
Felix Nadar, aeronautical scientist and photographer, became an unexpected star of the Smithsonian Libraries’ Dibner Portrait collection in The Commons on Flickr. Although probably not a household name these days (and definitely not under his given name - Gaspard-Félix Touranchon Tournachon), Nadar was quite a character in 19th century France. Luminaries of all kinds, including George Sand and Marcel Proust, flocked to his Paris photography studio for portrait sittings. He was also a regular contributor to several French comic papers.
While experimenting with balloons, Nadar took the first aerial photo from one in 1858. His adventures with ballooning are said to have inspired Jules Verne’s book Five Weeks in a Balloon. Nadar later turned his attention to heavier aircraft, such as the helicopter, and in his 1910 New York Times obituary, Nadar was credited as having conceived of the idea of a “heavier-than-air flying machine” years before the first successful “aeroplane”.
This unusual portrait, showing Nadar aloft in aboard one of his balloons, has been featured in the online exhibit Scientific Identity: Portraits from the Dibner Library of Science and Technology for more than five years, but it wasn’t until Nadar made his debut on Flickr that he gained internet popularity. He is now a favorite of more than 200 people and featured in such unusual Flickr pools as “Basket World”. A colorful figure of the 19th century finding a new fanbase in the 21st!
Erin Rushing of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.