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Inspiration for Fine Art Portrait Photography

Réhahn’s portrait portfolio from Vietnam, Cuba, India and other countries has repeatedly landed him on the world’s best portrait and travel photographer lists. For the first time, he shares insider information and techniques inspired by a French master photographer from another epoch – Félix Nadar.

Nadar is considered to be the world’s first Fine Art portrait photographer. He photographed authors, musicians, and artists such as Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, Sarah Bernhardt, and other well-known personalities from the 19th century. His portraits gave weight to the art of the portrait. His style continues to inspire the work of contemporary portrait photographers as he did Réhahn’s Vietnam portrait photography for The Precious Heritage Project and museum in Hoi An.


A young girl from the Dao ethnic group in Vietnam poses for her Fine Art portrait for The Precious Heritage Project.

Inspiration from a Portrait Master

Before I ever picked up a camera, I was already being led towards portrait photography without realizing it. At a young age, I became a collector of classic French literature. I loved the authors themselves but I also was passionate about any book that I could find that smelled of ancient libraries and centuries of history.

This obsession steered me towards European Romantic authors such as Victor Hugo, George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, and Alexandre Dumas. What I didn’t realize at the time was that they were all photographed by the same portrait photographer – Nadar.

Victor Hugo
George Sand
Charles Baudelaire
Alexandre Dumas

Who was Nadar ?

A famous bohemian personality and caricaturist, Nadar also became the first true portrait photographer. His pared-down black and white images seemed to jump off the paper, telling the story of each persona in front of the camera.

Born Gaspard-Félix Tournachon in 1820, Nadar created his iconic pseudonym when he was working as a political caricaturist.

At the time, while photography was just gaining in popularity, it was still considered to be more of a fad than a true art form. Contemporary photographers, such as myself, can thank Nadar for the fact that his work transformed the metier.

“In photography, like in all things, there are people who can see and others who cannot even look.” – Nadar

Nadar’s work was at once intimate and elegant, drawn from his relationships with the illustrious subjects he invited into his studio. With his emotional portraits of 19th-century superstars, portrait photography became more than just a snapshot for the family album. Nadar substantiated the artistry of portrait photography, which was the beginning of it being considered collectible Fine Art.


How Nadar’s Portrait Photography Transformed My Work

For me, it’s not just “who” he photographed as much as how he photographed them. He chose simple, clean backgrounds that put their personas front and center. The lack of adornment allowed the viewer to enter the intimate worlds of the subjects as if one were sitting across from them in mid-conversation.

“To produce an intimate likeness rather than a banal portrait, the result of mere chance, you must put yourself at once in communion with the sitter, size up his thoughts and his very character” Nadar once said about his photography style.

When I started to take portraits myself, I didn’t immediately turn towards Nadar for inspiration. My work for photographs such as “Hidden Smile” and “An Phuoc” was more geared towards the spontaneity of the moment; the colors and people who drew me in.

Yet, when I started preparing my photos for the Precious Heritage Museum with its larger-than-life portraits of all 54+ ethnic groups in Vietnam, I knew that I needed to formalize the style. I wanted the rooms with the Vietnam portraits to have an immediate effect and being consistent was part of that. I had set myself the goal of representing each ethnic group in Vietnam with elegance, dignity, and emotion. I wanted to do that without additional embellishment.

A woman from the Ha Nhi ethnic group in Vietnam posed for my Fine Art portrait with pride

I had two options, lifestyle (meaning photographing the subjects in motion in a natural background) or creating portraits with a plain background. I chose the latter because I wanted to highlight the beauty of each tribe’s traditional garments and their expressions. Nadar’s pared-down style was a good match for this project.

A man from the Cham ethnic group in Vietnam is the subject of this Fine Art portrait.

Nadar also focused on strong contrast. He typically used lights to create deeper shadows and brighter highlights. This contrast was especially important since for the majority of his portraits he only had the option of shooting in black & white (color photography wasn’t invented until 1861.)

Personally, I prefer to use only natural light to create contrast in my portraits. I feel it softens the effect and allows the subject to have an instinctive expression since they are in a natural environment. This is where, as a photographer, only experience can teach you how to create the effect you want.

The sunny disposition of this woman from the O Du ethnic group in Vietnam was accentuated by the textured yellow wall behind her in this Fine Art portrait

I know how the the light will be different at 5 am versus 8 am or in the early evening instead of the late afternoon. It all depends on where you’re shooting and who. I’ve been known to wait hours for the right light to come along because I want to highlight the marks of age on a subject’s face rather than erasing them with softer sunlight.

The strong contrast in this Fine Art photography portrait of a woman from the Pu Peo ethnic group in Vietnam was created entirely with natural light

In my mind, each portrait is a story that can be told in a single moment. Every element—the lighting, the colors, the interaction with the subject—affect how successful the portrait will be at communicating with the viewer.

Emotion Through Interaction Creates Better Portraits

Another reason that I continue to find inspiration in Nadar’s work is that I’m intrigued by his relationships with his subjects. He has been called “the first celebrity photographer” since those he photographed were the artistic luminaries of his time. Yet, he was far from being one of the paparazzi-type photographers that have become so common now.

Nadar often photographed his friends and contemporaries, whose world he shared because of his notoriety as an artist. The relationships he created with them through his jokes and banter can be seen in the confidential nature of his best portraits. Even in the 19th century, Nadar was already starting to formulate a philosophy about how to interact with his subjects.

“Photographic theory can be learned in one hour; the first notions of practice in one day … what can’t be learned, I’ll tell you, is the feeling of the light; it is the artistic appreciation of the mix of effects produced by diverse days … What is even more difficult to learn is the moral intelligence of your subject; it is this quick tact which puts you in communication with the model, and allows you to give, not an indifferent plastic reproduction within the reach of the last laboratory servant, but the most familiar, the most favorable resemblance, the intimate resemblance. This is the psychological side of photography, the word doesn’t sound too ambitious to me.”Nadar

I love being a photographer because I love interacting with people. I have no interest in simply snapping photos of random things and people.

What draws me in is the story behind the person. Who are they? What do they want to say? How can I help them say it? Am I doing it with respect? These are the types of questions I ask myself each time before I take a portrait.

This woman from the Khmer ethnic group in Vietnam was a pleasure to photograph because of her strong presence and pride to be representing her ethnic group for The Precious Heritage Project

This was especially important for me when I was working on The Precious Heritage project and museum. Each portrait represented two things – the individual person who was in front of me as well as their ethnic group and their diverse cultural heritage. A click-and-shoot style wasn’t going to cut it.

Instead of photographing celebrities as Nadar did, I wanted to make each subject be the star of his or her own portrait. In this way, the viewer could enter into their world with respect and curiosity for their culture.

After all, who’s to say that Victor Hugo and a man of letters from the Cham ethnic group in Central Vietnam don’t have equal impact on the world’s cultural heritage?

A scholar from the Cham ethnic group in Vietnam posed with ancient books for his fine art portrait

Making a career as a Fine Art photographer takes time, patience and inspiration. I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about one of my main influences for my Vietnam portrait photography for The Precious Heritage museum in Hoi An.

I truly never get tired of looking through Nadar’s incredible body of work and imagining the conversations he must have had with his illustrious guests…

The face of a woman from the Pink Ha Nhi ethnic group in Vietnam is accentuated by the bright pink tassels she wears on her traditional garment for her portrait. The plain black background brings these details into high-relief

For more about my philosophy about how to interact with photographic subjects, you might be interested in my more in-depth article: Art of Interaction

Some of my photographs that were inspired by Nadar’s style can be seen in my Portrait Photography book: 100 Iconic Portraits

For more about Nadar’s Life and Work:

For more inspiration about photography