Photography Pioneers: Gustave Le Gray

Photography as an art-form

4 min readJul 29, 2020
Gustave Le Gray, self-portrait, 1847 — with his Daguerreotype camera

Gustave Le Gray, 1820–1884, has been called “the most important French Photographer of the nineteenth century”, because of his technical innovations and all the new ideas he brought to photography.

Le Gray was originally a painter, a former student of Paul Delaroche. While living in Italy, he painted portraits and scenes of the countryside, between 1843–1846. He soon joined the photography world when it was still on the early years of its development.

His firsts daguerreotypes, made in 1847, were influenced by his time has a painter, since his early work includes mostly portraits, scenes of nature and a few buildings.

He taught photography to students such as Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Nadar, Olympe Aguado and Maxime Du Camp.

In 1851, he became one of the first five photographer hired for the Mission Héliographiques (the objective of this mission was to document French monuments and buildings).

Gustave Le Gray, Château de Chenonceau, 1851

In that same year he helped to organize the “first organization in the worldof photography, Société Héliographique.

In 1852 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.

This citation illustrates how he was a big influencer and defender of photography has a form of art.

Gustave Le Gray, The Beech Tree, circa 1856

In 1855, while becoming the official photographer of Napoleon III, he opened a photographic studio. He then proceeds on working in photography and from 1856 to 1858, he produced his most famous work, his seascapes. Unfortunately, his studio was a financial failure, in spite of his artistic success, the business was poorly managed and ran into debts. He therefore closed the studio and fled the country to avoid his creditors, alone, leaving his wife and children behind.

His life was full of up and downs, after running away he began to tour the Mediterranean, with the writer Alexandre Dumas. During theirs journey they ran into Giuseppe Garilbaldi and Gray took photos of him and Palermo under a bombardment in Sicilia — they became instantly famous throughout Europe.

Le Gray went to Lebanon, while working for a French army magazine, where he covered the troops movements. He was injured while heading to Egypt and there, in Alexandria, he photographed people like Henri d’Artois and Edward VII (future king of the United Kingdom).

Gustave Le Gray, Châlons Camp, General Bellville and his son, 1857

He ended up in Cairo, in 1864, where he lived a modest life as a drawing professor, while retaining a small photography shop. He continued to send his photographs to universal exhibitions but they didn’t catch anyone’s attention.

Gustave Le Gray, Tour Saint-Jacques, 1859

But what was so innovative in his photographs?

He improved paper negatives, making them more receptive to fine detail.

He also combined printings, creating seascapes by using two different negatives for the water and sky.

Gustave Le Gray, Seascape with Sailing Ship and Tugboat

Gustave Le Gray was one of the firsts to classify photography as a form of art. And thanks to his combined printings and paper, we can have a better look on French Architecture, while enjoying the small details.

Isn’t it fascinated that, what we call today, Double-Exposure Photography started in 1847? We can even think of the different prints as layers, like the ones in today’s AdobePhotoshop.

Sometimes we take things for granted. Things that you never thought of losing or having. We have to look into the past to understand how we’re fortunate now, that’s why we have this column on our blog, named Photography Pioneers, where we honor people that made photography what it is today.

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