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.



11 Comments Add yours

  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!

    1. pammyv02 says:

      As far as I know the image is by Gustave LeGray. Please have a look here, they have a large collection of his work

  2. Olivier says:

    In fact, i’m talking especially about this photo:

    I ‘m suprised to see it in many sites presented as a Gustave Le Gray. But you can find this with an other quality totally different present in the Shetlend Museum attributed to JD Ratter in 1922. As you can see in this link:

    And you can find some other sources whose talk about it. Also when you look the biography of Gustave Le Gray, nowhere is mentioned he’s been in scotland. I try to know if i’m wrong or not. At first, i’ve done the mistake too, but since i ‘ve found this photo into the collection of the Shetlend Museum, i’ve got a big doubt taht’s it a Gustave Le Gray’s photo. Thank you.

  3. Olivier says:

    Hello, i know it’s confusing and i didn’t want to argue with you, just advice you. But i have had few chats on Facebook about this photo. And during the last chat, the admin from the group “Ode to Picturalism” used your blog page to justify his view point. I’m sorry but it’s a mistake. Even i love this photo and Gustave Le Gray, but his photo it’s not from him:

    So now you’ve got the informations. It’s up to you and your blog’s credibility to fix it or not. We all do mistakes and me the first. But there is so much wrong things, mistakes and fake news on the net that important to fix this sometimes. I’ve been chocking aswell to see a commercial internet site selling it as a Gustave Le Gray picture.
    There is nothing aggressive in the process so don’t be offended just objective.
    Also, thank you for your very nice blog. It’s very great and well designed.
    Best regards

    1. pammyv02 says:

      Thank you for letting me know. It’s very much appreciated.

  4. Olivier says:

    I’m glad you appreciate my message. There is nothing bad in it, i didn’t want to annoye you or anything else. I wanted just to advice you. I’ve sent aswel a message to the Shetlend Museum to know more about this photo. Anyway, i’ve been ejected from the group “Ode to Picturalisme” by the admin, just because he didn’t want to admit his mystake. It was also my first post in this group 😂.
    But never mind, it’s not a problem. We’ve just created a group on Facebook, with a couple of friends called “Monochromy (past and present photography)”. So if you want to join us, you’re welcome.
    Take care, best regards.

    1. pammyv02 says:

      With certain photographers is difficult to find credible sources since so much time has passed. Sorry to hear that you’ve been ejected from the group. I really did not realise that my blog is seen by so many people. If you can send me the link to your Facebook group, I will be sure to check it out. Regards

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