LE GRAY, Gustave

b. 1820; d.1882

Le Grey was a French artist who began to take photographs towards the end of the 1840s, and who set up a portrait studio in Paris. He made pictures of landscapes and seascapes. However, he is better known for having introduced the waxed paper process, in which a negative was made on paper which had been permeated with wax. This improved the transparency of the paper, and therefore greater definition. Another advantage of this process was that this sensitised waxed paper (though a little slower than the calotype) would be kept for up to two weeks before use, whereas the conventional calotype could only be kept one day.

In 1850 produced a book entitled "A practical treatise on Photography" by which time he was a practising teacher.

Le Gray created a sensation in 1856 when his picture "Brig upon the Water" was exhibited at the Photographic Society of London's annual exhibition. Up till that time, because photographic materials were not sensitive to red and highly sensitive to blue, landscape pictures tended to have over-exposed skies which appeared white. Le Gray's picture showed a pleasing representation of sky and sea on one print. Some history books claim that this had been achieved on one negative because it so happened that the luminosity of the foreground was similar to that of the sky, others claim that two negatives were used, and that this was the first example of combination printing. Whatever the case, this prompted photographers all the more to address themselves to ensuring that outdoor scenes were more aesthetically rendered. The print itself remains in the possession of the Royal Photographic Society, and on the mount is written "The great sensation of 1856".

In 1861 Le Gray retired from photography (ostensibly because of the carte-de-visite boom) and was appointed Professor of Drawing in Cairo.

© Robert Leggat, 1999.