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GUSTAVE LE GRAY

July 9 - September 29, 2002 at J. Paul Getty Museum, West Los Angeles

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.


Gustave Le Gray is one of the giants in the history of photography, yet remains largely anonymous to the general public. His efforts, both as a scientist and artist during the 19th century, helped establish photography as an important art form. Along with pioneers like Roger Fenton and William Henry Fox Talbot, Le Gray pushed the young medium towards acceptance as an independent art and not just a scientific method.

What makes the exhibition even more fun is that the photographer himself is one of those characters whose life would fit in a soap-opera. Trained as a painter in the studio of the romantic painter Paul Delaroche, he enjoyed a meteoric rise after he took up photography. He also possessed a deep interest in chemistry, which helped him to develop new methods for producing images. Le Gray invented the waxed-paper process, which provided a sharper image, as well as a collodion (or glass negative) process. Unfortunately, he did not publish his collodion discoveries until after Frederick Scott Archer had already announced his findings. Collodion would become the standard negative process preferred by all photographers for half a century, until replaced by celluloid film in 1899.

Yet the day-to-day work in the studio bored him. He ignored his business, which subsequently failed. This, possibly combined with the pressure of an unhappy marriage, pushed Le Gray to abandon his studio. He headed off with novelist Alexander Dumas to explore the Mediterranean by boat, leaving his family behind. Le Gray was abandoned by Dumas on the island of Malta and finally ended up in Egypt, eventually dying in Cairo almost a quarter of a century later. The last part of his life is shrouded in mystery and speculation.

For all of the drama in his life, it is Le Gray's body of work that stands as one of the most significant in the 19th century. In addition to all of his technical innovations, he demonstrated through his work the endless possibilities of the medium. His The Great Wave--Sete (1857) is a masterpiece. Early photographic films were notorious for their inability to successfully capture the blue spectrum, so Le Gray employed two methods to get around the problem. The first was to shoot late in the afternoon when the sun was low in the horizon, thus eliminating much of the blue from the sky. The second part was much more complicated, requiring two negatives. He used one negative for the sky and a second for the land and sea. The two negatives were sandwiched together in the printing process, thus creating a seamless image.

His photographs of the sea were widely praised, as were his images of the forests of Fontainebleau. The changing light and difficult contrast of light and dark among the trees made working in the forest very challenging. Images such as The Beech Tree (1855-57) comprised a powerful statement of his technical abilities to make beautiful images under the most arduous conditions.

Le Gray pushed other artists to find ways to make beautiful photographs, no matter what the limitations of film or equipment. It is a legacy that still inspires photographers today. The more than 100 images spanning Le Gray's career, many of which have never been exhibited and which happily include a number from his Egyptian period, constitute a powerful case for the seminal stature of this 19th century photographer.