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Gustave Le Gray

Jean Baptiste Gustave Le Gray was born in Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d'Oise on August 30, 1820. He received his formal artistic training in painter Paul Delaroche's studio, and opened his own Parisian portrait studio in the late 1840s. He received his first critical recognition for his landscape images of Fontainebleau in 1849. In the meantime, he became a student of photographic chemistry, for which he became as passionate as he was about photography.

He began publishing texts on his inventions in 1850, with A Practical Treatise on Photography, in which he described what allegedly was the first wet collodion process of producing a negative on a glass plate. However, his process description was vague at best, in contrast to Frederick Scott Archer's detailed findings published the following year, which earned him the distinction of being known as the ‘father of the wet collodion process'. However, Mr. Le Gray is credited with significantly improving the quality of paper negatives with his waxed paper process, in which a two-tiered process of treating paper with wax to produce a negative prior to exposure improved the paper’s transparency. This resulted in greater definition and therefore produced a much more intricately detailed image than did the original calotype technique. Although admittedly slower than the calotype process, the waxed paper method could be mixed within two weeks of its use, whereas the calotype only lasted for a single day.

Mr. Le Gray's love of landscape and seascape photography led to another important innovation. Creating seascapes was a very cumbersome process because it required a negative for the sky and another negative for the water because of the range of light required for each. There was also the risk of overexposure because photographic materials of the time were supersensitive to blue, which often made the sky of a seascape appear to be white. However, Mr. Le Gray's picture Brig upon the Water created a major sensation when featured in the Photographic Society of London’s 1856 exhibition because it combined both the sky and the water with the proper exposures onto a single print. Some critics have argued this feat could be achieved with a single negative because of luminosity similarities between the sky and foreground. However, the consensus is that two negatives were used in what is believed to be the first example of combination printing. This amazing print remains on display at the Royal Photographic Society.

The popularity of carte-de-visite photography was likely responsible for Mr. Le Gray's retirement from photography in 1861. He moved to Egypt, where he became a professor of drawing in Cairo while operating a photography studio on the side. There, he remained for the next two decades, and continued to exhibit his photographs, which remained largely unnoticed outside of Egypt. Sixty-three-year-old Gustave Le Gray died in virtual anonymity in Cairo on or around July 30, 1884.


Ref.:
2012 Bibliotheque Nationale de France (URL: http://expositions.bnf.fr/legray/grand/098.htm).

1962 Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960 (Toronto: General Publishing Company, Ltd.), p. 52.

1995 A History of Photography from its Beginnings till the 1920s (URL: http://lnx.phototeka.it/documenti/Cenni_storici_fotografia.pdf).

1856 Orr’s Circle of the Sciences: Practical Chemistry (London: Houlston and Stoneman), pp. 149-150.

2004 Photographers of Genius at the Getty (Los Angeles: Getty Publications), pp. 32-35.

1856 Photographic Notes, Vol. I (London: Bland and Long), p. 46.


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