Best known as Nadar, Félix Tournachon (1820–1910), whose portraits have been celebrated in numerous exhibitions, is an emblematic figure of 19th-century photography. It was in the 1850s that he took the portraits of the great figures of the arts in bohemian Paris, at the same time developing an approach that secured the success of his studio throughout the Second Empire.

Under the Third Republic, which saw Paul Nadar (1856–1939) join and eventually take over the family firm, the portraits became standardised, a tendency often considered as a sign of excessive commercialisation. This exhibition sets out to question this view by looking at these photographs of actors and actresses as a complementary vision of society towards the end of the 19th century. In this sense, the photographer’s studio occupied a crossroads between “rule and caprice,” where portraits of illustrious figures and solemn representations of the pillars of the community cohabit with the face-making and gestures, displays and mimed drama of the performing arts.

Drawing on the archives of the Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, with its rich holdings of negatives from the Nadar Père & Fils studio, the exhibition links and rereads these two apparently opposing aspects of the portrait and shows that between these “great men” and “tableaux vivants” captured by the lens what we see deployed is the whole imaginary realm of a society.

The exhibition sets out to evoke the relation between Nadar and his son Paul through a sequence of some 200 images made from the original negatives, not retouched and not reframed, which give this “rule and caprice“ the flavour of the archive.