Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Gustave Le Gray

Gustave Le Gray was referred to as  “the most important French photographer of the nineteenth century” because of his technical innovations in the still new medium of photography, his role as the teacher of other noted photographers, and “the extraordinary imagination he brought to picture making”.

Le Gray was born near Paris where studied painting in the studio of Paul Delaroche, and made his first daguerreotypes by at least 1847. His real contributions—artistically and technically came in the domain of photography, in which he first experimented in 1848. Even before making the marine images, he became one of the most renowned pioneers of the new art. His architectural, landscape and portrait photographs, his writings, teaching and inventions were all highly influential.

He was one of the photographers in those time that believed that photography should be considered as art.

In the 1852 edition of his treatise, Le Gray wrote: “It is my deepest wish that photography, instead of falling within the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts. That is its sole, true place, and it is in that direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it. It is up to the men devoted to its advancement to set this idea firmly in their minds.” To that end, he established a studio, gave instruction in photography (fifty of Le Gray’s students are known, including major figures such as Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Émile Pécarrère, Olympe Aguado, Nadar, Adrien Tournachon, and Maxime Du Camp), and provided printing services for negatives by other photographers.

Flush with success and armed with 100,000 francs capital from the marquis de Briges, he established “Gustave Le Gray et Cie” in the fall of 1855 and opened a lavishly furnished portrait studio at 35 boulevard des Capucines (a site that would later become the studio of Nadar and the location of the first impressionist exhibition).

However, in 1860, despite his success a steady stream of wealthy clients, he became bankrupt. Abruptly he abandoned his business and his family and left Paris for Italy. He finally settled in Egypt to become a drawing instructor, though he continued to take photographs, and died there in 1882.

The Great Wave, the most dramatic of his seascapes, combines Le Gray’s technical mastery with expressive grandeur. He took the view on the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier. At the horizon, the clouds are cut off where they meet the sea. This indicates the join between two separate negatives. The combination of two negatives allowed Le Gray to achieve tonal balance between sea and sky on the final print. It gives a more truthful sense of how the eye, rather than the camera, perceives nature.

When first shown, the luminous, shimmering effects amid Le Gray’s otherwise dark seascapes were often mistaken for moonlight. It is easy to see why this misconception arose in these monochrome images where darkness encroaches towards the edges of the scene. In fact, he achieved the moonlight effect by pointing the camera in the direction of the sun during daylight.

Below you will find a few of his images. However what strikes me personally is the composition. The minimalist side of it and it reminds me of a lot of the images a lot of photographers opt for when photographing seascapes. I have a feeling that we are imitating what has already been done or these images are just ahead of their time. Isn’t it interesting though that despite all the advanced equipments at our disposal, we are still imitating the Masters.



One thought on “Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Gustave Le Gray

  1. Still imitating the masters and still with the same endeavour “that photography, instead of falling within the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts.” Progress is being made but there’s still a long way to go!

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