Today I don’t have my list at hand so I’ll look at a name I can quite easily locate via the research I did on Charles Nègre. It will give me a better understanding of the social environment this man was moving in as well as give a better idea of the rise of new technologies in photography.
Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray was born on the 30th of August 1820 in Villiers-le-Bel, Val-d’Oise. He was originally trained as a painter, studying under François-Édouard Picot and Paul Delaroche where he met Henri Le Secq and Charles Nègre. He crossed over to photography in the early years of its development – evidently he took it up in Rome (1844–47), but it was after his return to Paris that he became committed to it, practising the daguerreotype and, above all from 1848, the calotype, which Blanquart Évrard was then trying to popularize in France.
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. In 1850–51 Le Gray pioneered two major innovations: waxing photographic paper before sensitization, and—it seems independently of Bingham and Archer—using collodion on glass. These researches, published in four works 1850–4, and Le Gray’s mastery of photographic technique, made him a leader of the young generation of French calotypists. 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”.
In 1849 he opened a studio, where he did his own work, executed commissions, and gave lessons. His pupils included Maxime Du Camp, Léon de Laborde, the Aguado brothers, Adrien Tournachon, and John Beasley Greene. In 1851 he was one of the five photographers chosen for the Mission Héliographique, and on a three month journey through Touraine and Aquitaine experimented with the waxed paper technique, making over 600 negatives.
From 1855 he ran a large studio on the Boulevard des Capucines, supported financially by the de Briges family. This meant accepting commercial constraints that he had hitherto avoided, favouring wet plate photography, and attempting to reconcile the demands of art and productivity. 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. They crossed the path of Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Dumas enthusiastically joined the revolutionary forces with his fellow travelers. His striking pictures of Giuseppe Garibaldi and Palermo under Sicilian bombing became as instantly famous throughout Europe as their subjects. Dumas abandoned Le Gray and the other travellers in Malta as a result of a conflict about a woman.
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 photogaphed 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; he remained there about 20 years, earning an 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. From this late period there remain a mere 50 pictures, some of them as beautiful as ever. He died in Cairo in 1884.
My favourite images:
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