Nadar was born in Paris as Adrien Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. He originally studied medicine but after his father's passing he lacked the money to continue these studies. In 1848 Le Charivari published his first written pieces and caricatures under the pseudonym "Nadar". The nickname was a result of his habit to end certain words with the sound "dar". His friends called him "Tournadar", which was eventually shortened to "Nadar".
In the revolutionary year 1848, when unexpected socialist/communist uprisings occured in various European countries, Nadar was drafted in the Polish army. He was taken prisoner of war, but allowed to return to Paris after the unrest died down again. Inspired by the political climate of his day Nadar founded his own humor magazine, La Revue Comique à l' Usage des Gens Sérieux, which featured cartoons and illustrations by him and other artists, such as Bertall. The magazine frequently lampooned Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the famous Napoleon, who would later call himself Napoleon III. Nadar drew a text comic about him, 'Les Aventures Illustrées du Prince pour rire' (1848), which ridiculed the Swiss born prince as a weakling unfamiliar with French culture. The joke grew sour when Louis-Napoléon won the 1848 elections and became the next French president. Nadar made a follow-up story, 'Vie politique et littéraire de Viperin, journaliste et industriel' (1848), a thinly veiled attack on the journalist Émile de Girardin, whom he blamed for making the general public vote for Louis-Napoléon. In the story Girardin is depicted as a literal viper, poisonous to everyone in his environment, until he is finally crushed under a boot.
Nadar's next installment, 'Vie publique et privée de mossieu Réac' (1848-1849), was less direct and spiteful in its satire and far more clever. It features the adventures of a hypocritical opportunist, Monsieur Réac, who always changes his political ideology for self-profit. He doesn't even shy away from recycling horse manure into food and supply these to hospitals. In one episode, Réac visits Louis-Napoléon, a golden opportunity to mock the new president once again. Unfortunately Louis-Napoléon became increasingly dictatorial and La Revue Comique was censored as a result. In December 1849, its final issue came out, also throwing a curtain over Nadar's comics career. While 'Monsieur Réac' only lasted a year and one month, it was historically important for introducing a new way of publishing comics: in the press instead of books. More than a century later, in 1977, all episodes of 'Mossieu Réac' would be published by Pierre Horay under the title 'Vie Publique et Privée de Mossieu Réac'.
Nadar's career as a caricaturist lasted longer. In 1851 he started an ambitious project called 'Musée des gloires contemporaines', in which all the celebrities of his time were invited to pose for him and have their caricatures drawn. Other illustrators aided him with this task as well. More than a 1,000 people were inducted in his personal "Panthéon Nadar". He had enough self-mockery to give his own features the same treatment. In 1856 he drew a cartoon called 'Une théorie photographique par Nadar', in which a woman asks him to make a portrait of her late husband who died two years ago in Buenos Aires, but says that she heard that photographs have a better resemblance than painting. By 1856, he was also the editor of the weekly humor magazine Le Petit Journal pour Rire, and he was chief-editor of Le Journal Amusant in the 1860s.
However, Nadar's fame as a photographer has largely eclipsed his cartooning career. He took countless photographs of the rich and famous, including people like Victor Hugo, Jules Verne and Sarah Bernhardt. He was the first to make aerial photographs, which he did with the aid of a hot air balloon. Honoré Daumier made a famous lithography of him and wrote beneath it: "Nadar elevates photography to art." At the time, Nadar's ballooning was so famous that he inspired Jules Verne's 1863 novel 'Cinq Semaines en ballon' ('Five Weeks in a Balloon'). In 1867, he published the first magazine for people with interest in air travel: L'Aéronaute. He also used his ballooning expertise during the Siege of Paris (1870-1871), when the city was occupied by Prussian troops. Nadar made sure that the besieged citizens still received information about what happened outside their city. This made him the first airmail servant.
Revolving self-portrait, made by Nadar in 1865
Nadar was also the first photographer to take pictures below the ground, more specifically in the Parisian catacombes. In 1886, he and his son interviewed chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul and took photographs while asking him questions. This was the first instance in history where the text of an interview was illustrated with photographs of the interviewed person in question. In old age Nadar had more trouble to make ends meet. He had a final triumph in 1900 when his entire work was exhibited at the World Exhibition in Paris. He passed away in 1910.
His name lives on in the annual photography prize Prix Nadar and the term "Nadar barrier", which is used in Belgium to describe a crowd control barrier (Nadar used these devices to keep the crowd at a distance when he landed his balloon in Brussels in 1864.)