One of the greatest early photographers, Le Gray's studio was also enormously influential in training photographers and in printing their work. His early salt prints of the Forest of Fontainebleau are a photographic counterpart to the Barbizon painters such as Corot, Daubigny, Diaz, Millet and Rousseau, whilst his topographic and architectural work was used by the Commission des Monuments Historiques in their Mission Heliographique, for which five selected photographers traversed France to record its monuments. Le Gray's depiction of Paris in the later 1850s bestowed a similar grandeur to the great public spaces of the capital.
Le Gray was a founding member of the Societe Heliographique and of the SFP. In the early days of photography, he met Mestral, Le Secq, and Negre in the studio of Paul Delaroche while he was studying as a painter. He practiced caloptypy from 1848 to about 1860. Before opening his own commercial studio in 1856, he taught calotype printing to most of the practitioners of the time. He had a tireless passion for developing photography, publishing four treatises on the subject of processes. He claimed to be the inventor of collodion glass negatives, and certainly experimented in the process from 1849.
Le Gray is undoubtedly the inventor of the waxed paper negative process, which revolutionized the calotype enabling photographers to prepare their negatives in advance and to print more photographs each day.
He began photographing his environs and was commissioned in 1851 with Mestral on a Mission heliographique to document the chateaux of the Loire and the Pyrenees. This commission gave him his first real chance to practice his talent. On his return to Paris he photographed the forest of Fontainebleau and would often juxtapose paper and glass negatives to create the desired prints of his subjects. He also reproduced works of art from the salons from 1850-1853. Between 1855-1859 he mostly used collodion glass plates for portraits, marine studies, views of Fontainebleau, and the fields of Chalons. In 1853-1854 with his student Eugene Le Dien, he travelled to Rome and Southern Italy and returned to start his own studio. In 1860 on an expedition with Alexandre Dumas he reverted back to paper negatives to photograph Palermo and Syria. From his time in Egypt, however, there are only prints from glass plate negatives.
The foundation of the Societe heliographique and the SFP allowed Le Gray multiple possibilities to show his photographic innovations. He was a core member of the French photography scene from 1850-1855.
Gustave Le Gray
Born at Villiers-le-Bel
Studies painting in Paris, in studio of Paul Delaroche
Marries Palmyra Leonardi
Has already experimented with Dagguereotypy
First of four treatises on photography
Engaged by French Commission of Historical Monuments, Mission Heliographique. Travels with August Mestral
Establishes studio shortly after subsequent edition of treatise is published
Establishes 'Gustave Le Gray et Cie' in autumn of this year, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines (later to become studio of Nadar)
Produces views of landscapes and seascapes to critical acclaim, including La Grande Vague, Sete
Le Gray enterprise dissolves due to financial problems and new popularity of cheaper carte-de-visite. Le Gray flees country to avoid creditors, sailing from Marseille to the East
After having spent 20 years in Egypt, earning a living as photographer and drawing tutor, Le Gray dies