Exercise 1.1: Historic Portrait

Franz Liszt by Nadar (1886)

Gaspard Félix Tournachon (Nadar, b. 1820 – d. 1910) took this portrait of Liszt just a few months before his death later that year, so it may well be the last one ever taken of him.

I chose to research this particular image for several reasons.  Firstly, I find the image captivating and wanted to explore the reasons why this might be so.  Nadar was arguably the most renowned portrait photographer of his time, although I knew little about his work, so this was a good opportunity to do so.  I was also interested in the idea of it being a portrait of a composer: would any personal characteristics traverse the different mediums of music and image?

Technically, the image is taken from a public domain copyright-free site to enable me to safely reproduce it in my blog and appears to have been restored in some ways, notably to have a very high level of sharpening applied and tonal adjustments.  But it retains the characteristics of the original from cross-referencing to other web sites.  I was unable to find this particular image in a book, unfortunately.

Liszt is placed at 45 degrees to the camera looking almost straight towards it.  The camera appears to have been placed at head height, making him appear equal to the viewer.  He is lit on his left side, furthest from the camera, with relatively hard light which brings out the texture of his hair, clothes and skin blemishes.  Reflected light fills the shadows on the right side.  The depth of field is curious, being very shallow behind, with his left eye and hair being slightly soft, yet extending forwards such that all of the front of his clothing remains sharp.

The portrait reveals a slightly quizzical, quirky and mischievous look combined with a distinct melancholy in his eyes.  He appears kind.  I have only seen this particular combination in one other person, Gene Wilder, as can be observed in the example below (although my partner disagrees with the semblance):

Gene Wilder

Liszt’s piano music in particular seems to reveal a quirky energy – ever changing tempo, volume and style throughout a piece, punctuated with trills, arpeggios and other forms.  It never stays still, rarely settling into a steady rhythm rather like a fly in a room.  The portrait seems to capture this aspect of Liszt, his mouth and eyes still carrying a twinkle, despite revealing older age in his physical form.  

Equally, his music will then shift to a minor key and bring in rolling waves of sadness.  Nadar has captured this beautifully in Liszt’s eyes.  I more I look at the image i wonder whether Liszt himself knew that he was nearing the end of his life, having died just four months afterwards.

The camera angle makes Liszt appear approachable yet was taken when his status in the world of music was well established as “one of the most prominent representatives of the New German School” (Wikipedia, 2016).  We do not look down on him as an old man past his prime.  Nor is he presented as an aloof ‘celebrity’ composer by adopting a low camera angle.  He is viewed by Nadar as an equal – an equal just with a particular musical talent that still glints in his eyes.

Studying this photograph made the music of Liszt come alive in a way that photographs of other famous composers never have for me.  It is as though Nadar (himself a artist of various talents in addition to photography) recognised this essence and was able to tease it out in front of the camera, “the way they bring out the sitters’ intellect and charisma, not to mention humor (sic)…made Nadar famous.  These were portraits of artists by an artist” (Stepan, 2011)

Looking wider now at the work of Nadar, he made the transition to portrait photographer from caracature artist in the mid 19th century.  Until this point photography had largely been seen as separate to art on the basis that photographs were ‘untrue to the complexities of human perception’ in the eyes of artists like Delacroix (Marien, 2014).  Nadar exploited the desire of the middle classes to be seen as creative, leveraging his quick eye as a characaturist to capture them as cultural figures.  Fellow photographer Gustavo Le Grey declared him to be ‘sensitive to the nuances of personal character’ in addition to technically competent with a camera (ibid, p85).  In this way, coupled with his persona within artistic circles of the day, Nadar can probably be thanked to moving perception of photography closer to an art form and away from purely a technical recording mechanism.



Stepan, P. (2001) “50 Photographers you should know”, Hamburg, Prestel Verlag

Franz Liszt (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Liszt (Accessed: 15 November 2016)

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A cultural history. 4th edn. London, United Kingdom: Laurence King Publishing.


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