Landscape in Retrospect, A Brief Look at the 19th Century Photography of Gustave Le Gray

“It is my deepest wishes that photography, instead of falling in the domain of industry, of commerce, will be included among the arts. That is its sole true place, and that is the direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it” [1]. Gustave Le Gray (French, b. 1820 - d. 1884), was a trained painter turned photographer. Clearly by the quotation, he was an early adopter that photography could be more than a technical exercise in documentation. Le Gray, being ahead of his time saw the potential of what photography could be and is noted as one of the most important photographers of the 19th century who brought imagination to architectural, portraiture, war, and primarily landscape photography. Additionally, he educated the then upcoming practitioners in photographic practice [2]. This essay will survey Le Gray’s influence on not only the craft of the photographic medium but also his con- tributing impact in early landscape photography practices. Furthermore, explore where those influences can be seen in the contemporary photographic climate.

Gaspar-Felix Tournachon, or best known simply as Nadar spoke with enthusiasm in his 1900 text My Life as a Photographer that “It was about time that art came to join in”. It is said that these words were in reference to Gustave Le Gray [3]. Le Gray was a French photographer who began his interests in visual representation through the study of painting. Le Gray’s contributions to photography were two-fold. Firstly, one that should not go unrecognized is making improvements to the Calotype printing process by developing the waxed paper process in 1851. This process involved steeping paper with hot beeswax prior to sensitizing it with silver. This improvement to the printing process allowed for clarity and better resolution. The process had the added benefit of being convenient for photographers working out in the field because it could be accomplished completely dry [4]. Although known by this technical contribution Le Gray did eventually adopt the wet plate collodion process. Le Gray’s second most noted achievement in the history of photography was through his landscape work. Le Gray would level the field between art and pho- tography. During this time period, photography was not considered an art but a scientific practice. Photography struggled to find its place as a pictorial and expressive form of art akin to painting. Surely, being trained as a painter had contributed to his ability to render specific details that otherwise would have been ignored by others working in the photographic medium in the mid-19th century. An attention to capturing detail that he would be cited for.

Le Gray’s most noted early photographic landscape study was in the forest Fontainebleau (1849). The pictorial quality of these images resembles much of the idea behind the pic- turesque because of the rough subject matter contained in the multiple studies of trees and undergrowth. Michel Frizot notes that their size and print quality indicate the experimental nature of the work, that in fact there was a new approach in the making [5]. Le Gray’s work at Fontainebleau illustrates the subject of trees in this forest that display unique characteristics that include gnarled and twisted trunks. Because of the aesthetics of the photographic medium at the time, particularly its ability to render light, the forest images provide a surreal study of this landscape. If you compare these images to those of Sally Mann’s southern landscape work we quickly identify the similarities between them. By making improvements to the Calotype process, his Fontinebleau photographs were technical successes because he was able to solve the issue of movement seen in the leaves. Le Gray was illustrated photographically the richness of the foliage [6].

Although photography was still considered a young medium, the simple tricks we embrace today were also first explored in the mid to late 1800s. The forerunners were Oscar Gustave Rejlander and Henry Peach Emerson who also championed photography as art through allegorical imagery created by combination printing. Combination printing is the act of using parts of multiple images to construct a whole final image. Gustave Le Gray also utilized combination printing but doing so in a much more subtle way. Le Gray’s approach to combination printing is similar to our 21st century practice of high dynamic range (HDR) photography. Marien Warner Marien mentions in regard to Le Gray’s seascapes to reveal his resistance to the idea that photography was merely an automatic recording of scenes before the lens [7]. Le Gray concerned with making a complete photographic experience set out and photographed skies and shorelines separately to be able to retain detail in the sky and the foreground of each image. It was noted by Naomi Rosenblum that prior to Le Gray’s composited seascapes that almost no other attempt was convincing. Le Gray was able to transform clouds, sea, and rocks into an evocative arrangement of volume and light [8]. The majority of Le Gray’s seascape images are minimalist and sometimes even stark while some tackle the idea of the sublime. Although not as texturally detailed, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s modern-day stark seascapes resemble a quality about them that is reminiscent of Le Gray’s seascape work through their various approaches toward placement of the horizon line and their reductionist similarities.

It is always astonishing to identify modern photographic techniques and practices to find quite matter-of-fact that they are historic processes. Through this short survey Le Gray’s technical approaches and photographic philosophy it is clear that Gustave Le Gray is a 19th century photographer who set the pace of photographic practice in motion for the genre of landscape photography. Through technical improvements to his devotion that photography deserves its place in art Le Gray has contributed much to the shaping of the photographic medium.


Works Cited

  1. Le Gray, Gustave. Photo Quotations. Web. Retrieved February 2014. From:
  1. Getty Center. Gustave Le Gray, Photographer. J. Paul Getty Museum. Web. Retrieved February 2014. From:
  1. Musee d’Orsay. Gustave Le Gray Seascape, Study of Clouds. Musee d’Orsay. Web. Retrieved February 2014. From: id=851&L=1&tx_commentaire_pi1%5BshowUid%5D=20860&no_cache=1
  1. Peres, Michael S. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. 4th Edition. Focal Press. 2007. Pg 30.
  1. Frizot, Michel. The New History of Photography. Konemann. 1994. Pg 71.
  1. Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography.2nd Edition. Mc-Graw Hill. 2009. Pg 49.
  1. Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. 3rd Edition. Prentice Hall. 2010. Pg 56.
  1. Rosenblume, Naomi. A World History of Photography. Revised Edition. Abbeville. 1984. Pg 105.