Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray (French: [lə gʁɛ]; 30 August, 1820 – 30 July, 1884) has been called "the most important French photographer of the nineteenth century" because of his technical innovations, his instruction of other noted photographers, and "the extraordinary imagination he brought to picture making." He was an important contributor to the development of the wax paper negative.
Gustave Le Gray was born in 1820 in Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d'Oise. He was originally trained as a painter, studying under François-Édouard Picot and Paul Delaroche. He lived in Italy between 1843-1846 and painted portraits and scenes of the countryside. Le Gray exhibited his paintings at the salon in 1848 and 1853. He then crossed over to photography in the early years of its development.
He made his first daguerreotypes by 1847. His early photographs included portraits; scenes of nature such as Fontainebleau Forest; and buildings such as châteaux of the Loire Valley.
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 photographers hired for the Missions Héliographiques to document French monuments and buildings. In that same year he helped found the Société Héliographique, the "first photographic organization in the world." Le Gray published a treatise on photography, which went through four editions, in 1850, 1851, 1852, and 1854.
In 1855, Le Gray opened a "lavishly furnished" studio. At that time, becoming progressively the official photographer of Napoleon III, he became a successful portraitist. His most famous work dates from this period, 1856 to 1858, especially his seascapes. The studio was a fancy place, but in spite of his artistic success, his business was a financial failure: the business was poorly managed and ran into debts. He therefore "closed his studio, abandoned his wife and children, and fled the country to escape his creditors."
He began to tour the Mediterranean in 1860 with the writer Alexandre Dumas, père. They encountered Giuseppe Garibaldi during the trip and Le Gray photographed Garibaldi and Palermo. His striking pictures of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Palermo under Sicilian bombardment became as instantly famous throughout Europe. Dumas abandoned Le Gray and the other travelers in Malta and joined the revolutionary forces as a result of a personal conflict. Le Gray went to Lebanon, then Syria where he covered the movements of the French army for a magazine in 1861. Injured, he remained there before heading to Egypt. In Alexandria he photographed Henri d'Artois and the future Edward VII of the United Kingdom, and wrote to Nadar while sending him pictures.
He established himself in Cairo in 1864; earning a modest living as a professor of drawing, while retaining a small photography shop. He sent pictures to the universal exhibition in 1867 but they did not really catch anyone's attention. He received commissions from the vice-king Ismail Pasha. From this late period there remain 50 pictures. He died on July 30,1884, in Cairo.
His technical innovations included:
- 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.
Le Gray documented French monuments on a mission for the French government with other French photographers.
He was a successful portrait photographer, capturing figures such as Napoleon III and Edward VII. He also became famous for his seascapes, or marine. He spent 20 years in Cairo, Egypt, but there are few works from this period.
In October 1999, Sotheby's sold a Le Gray albumen print "Beech Tree, Fontainebleau" for £419,500, which was a world record for the most expensive single photograph ever sold at auction, to an anonymous buyer. At the same auction, an albumen print of "The Great Wave, Sète" 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.
- A practical treatise on photography, upon paper and glass by Gustave Le Gray, (translated by Thomas Cousins) London : T. & R. Willats, 1850.
- Photographic manipulation: the waxed paper process of Gustave Le Gray by Gustave Le Gray. Translated from the French. London: George Knight and Sons, 1853.