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In photos: Remembering Gustave Le Gray, one of the most important French photographers of the 19th century

The Beech Tree, by Gustave Le Gray (circa 1856). In October 1999, Sotheby's sold a Le Gray albumen print "Beech Tree, Fontainebleau" for £419,500, which -at that time- was a world record for the most expensive single photograph ever sold at auction to an anonymous buyer. Later that day -at the same auction- an albumen print of "Grande Vague, Sète" ("The Big Wave at Sète," "The Great Wave, Sète") also by Le Gray was sold for a new world record price of £507,500 or $840,370 to the same anonymous buyer who was later revealed to be Sheik Saud Al-Thani of Qatar. The record stood until May 2003 when Al-Thani purchased a daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey for £565,250 or $922,488.
The Beech Tree, by Gustave Le Gray (circa 1856). In October 1999, Sotheby's sold a Le Gray albumen print "Beech Tree, Fontainebleau" for £419,500, which -at that time- was a world record for the most expensive single photograph ever sold at auction to an anonymous buyer. Later that day -at the same auction- an albumen print of "Grande Vague, Sète" ("The Big Wave at Sète," "The Great Wave, Sète") also by Le Gray was sold for a new world record price of £507,500 or $840,370 to the same anonymous buyer who was later revealed to be Sheik Saud Al-Thani of Qatar. The record stood until May 2003 when Al-Thani purchased a daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey for £565,250 or $922,488.


August 30, 2016 /Photography News/ Born 196 years ago today, on 30 August 1820,  in Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d'Oise, Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray has been called by the J. Paul Getty Museum "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".




Gustave Le Gray, Self-portrait
Gustave Le Gray, Self-portrait (late 1850s)

Le Gray was originally trained as a painter, studying under François-Édouard Picot and Paul Delaroche. Later, he crossed over to photography in the early years of its development.

He made his first daguerreotypes by 1847. 

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

Photographic portrait of Louis-Napoléon / Napoleon III (1852) by Gustave Le Gray
Photographic portrait of Louis-Napoléon / Napoleon III (1852) by Gustave Le Gray
Despite being a successful portraitist (Napoleon III being one of his clients), the studio Le Gray opened in 1855 was poorly managed and he ran into debts. As a consequence, he closed the studio, abandoned his wife and children, and fled the country to escape his creditors.

Alexandre Dumas (father), 1860, by Gustave Le Gray
Alexandre Dumas (father), 1860, by Gustave Le Gray
He began touring the Mediterranean in 1860 with Alexandre Dumas, crossing paths with Giuseppe Garibaldi. Later, Le Gray went to Lebanon, then Syria, settling finally in Egypt in 1864, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Camel transporting artillery, Egypt (1866), by Gustave Le Gray
Camel transporting artillery, Egypt (1866), by Gustave Le Gray

Gustave Le Gray's technical innovations include:

  • Improvements on paper negatives, specifically waxing them before exposure making the paper more receptive to fine detail.
  • A collodion process published in 1850 but which was theoretical at best. The invention of the wet collodion method to produce a negative on a glass plate is now credited to Frederick Scott Archer who published his process in 1851.
  • Combination printing, creating seascapes by using one negative for the water and one negative for the sky at a time where it was impossible to have at the same time the sky and the sea on a picture due to the too extreme luminosity range.




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