A small man in his mid-thirties wrestles a large camera on to a jetty in Normandy. Ahead are five impressive ships with tall masts, their sails flapping gently in the wind. A crowd of people looks on, lined up excitedly on a pier to the figure’s right-hand side. A small rowboat travels towards the bulky apparatus.
Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February
The photographer is well-dressed. He wears a modishly long goatee beard, and his brow is furrowed with an angry squint. He will be here for several hours. Behind the camera, he frames his image perfectly, viewing it back to front and upside down, hidden under a dark cloth to keep out the light. He then wrestles a piece of glass — as big as the final image he needs — into the camera’s back. And then he waits. Later, before heading home to Paris, he develops his negative in Le Havre, possibly in a hotel booked just for the night.
Gustave Le Gray self-portrait, circa 1856-1859
Gustave Le Gray took this image in 1856 or 1857. It was a period of global upheaval and industrial revolution. Napoleon III was on the throne in France, Impressionism was about to be born, and photographers, though long under appreciated as artists and technologically primitive, were beginning to stand proud among the bright lights and wide boulevards of the French capital.
How photography became a modern art form
The photograph in question — Ships Leaving the Port at Le Havre — shows a series of silhouetted brigantines, or two-masted sailing ships. They are not naval vessels as was once suspected — the gun ports were painted on to deter pirates — while the dappling of the sun reveals Le Gray, a former painter, to have Romantic, sophisticated tastes, and the technical ability to capitalise on them.
‘Le Gray is one of the biggest names in 19th-century French photography,’ says Ken Jacobson, an expert on the photographer and author of the 2001 book The Lovely Sea-View — A Study of the Marine Photographs Published by Gustave Le Gray, 1856-1858.
Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), La vague brisée — Cette — Mer Méditerranée, 1857. Albumen print from collodion glass negative, mounted on original board. Image/sheet: 16½ x 12⅞ in (42 x 32.7 cm). Mount: 24⅝ x 17 in (62.6 x 43.2 cm). This work was offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February 2016 at Christie’s New York and sold for $137,000
While photography was still seen as a poor cousin to fine art — ‘artists resented the upstart’s claim to rival painting,’ says Jacobson — Le Gray was at the epicentre of a burgeoning Paris photography scene. In 1851, he was a founding member of the Société Héliographique, a group founded partly to trade knowledge on new techniques.
At the time, photography was regarded as a pursuit for for the well-off or committed amateur — or as Juliet Hacking puts it in Lives of the Great Photographers, ‘those who did not wish to be defined by the circumstances of their birth’. Other prominent Société members included nobleman photographer Henri Le Secq and various other scholars, artists, aristocrats and senior officials.
Le Gray’s studio, at La Barrière de Clichy, now in Paris’s 17th arrondissement, hosted photography students distinguished by birth, wealth or talent — ‘or sometimes all three’, writes Sylvie Aubenas in her 2002 monograph Gustave Le Gray.
By 1856 Le Gray had enjoyed significant commissions, producing portraits for the Imperial court of Napoleon III — a prominent patron of photography — as well as nature studies. But his seascapes pushed his popularity even higher.
‘He is a pre-Impressionist, you could say. He is looking for subjects, reinventing the subject matter of photography and how to make a picture’
‘He is a pre-Impressionist, you could say,’ says Eugenia Parry, author of 1987’s The Photography of Gustave Le Gray. ‘He liked the ocean, and was looking to photograph the outdoors. He is looking for subjects, reinventing the subject matter of photography and how to make a picture.’
Le Gray was itinerant, innovative, and divided opinion widely among his peers. ‘An intelligent seeker, a generous soul,’ writes photographer-cum-journalist Nadar in a 1900 letter. Eight years earlier, Maxime Du Camp, a former pupil of Le Gray, offered his own opinion: ‘If he had not been scatter-brained, he would have made his fortune.’
Born to a haberdasher father in 1820 on the outskirts of Paris, Le Gray very quickly showed creative promise. As a young man, he moved to the capital to study under painter Paul Delaroche, one of the earliest champions of photography.
In 1843 Delaroche was forced to close his studio after an accident resulting in the death of a student. Le Gray followed him to Rome, and within a month he was married to a local pedlar’s daughter, Palmira Leonardi. They resettled back in Paris and by the age of 26 Le Gray had two children. ‘He was a poet,’ says Parry. ‘He didn’t know how to do business, he didn’t really know how to do anything. He was kind of a dreamer.’
Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), The Brig, 1856. Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative mounted on board. Image/sheet: 12¾ x 16½ in (32.5 x 42 cm). Mount: 19⅜ x 24⅜ in (49.3 x 62 cm). This work was offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February 2016 at Christie’s New York and sold for $221,000
But perhaps what made Le Gray ‘scatter-brained’ also provides the key to his talent. His seascapes were a hit in England and France, among the most celebrated being The Brig (1856), with La vague brisée (1857) — The Breaking Wave — being a tour de force of instant image-capture, perhaps created by using more than one negative blended together. According to an 1857 edition of Revue Photographique, at one point Le Gray had orders totalling 50,000 francs for pieces such as these that had been created along the French coast.
Such work was less lucrative than his portraiture, which became increasingly neglected. His wealthy backer, the Marquis de Briges, died, and de Briges’s family liquidated Le Gray’s company, forcing the photographer to flee his creditors.
It was fitting that Le Gray left for a new life on a ship, something that was synonymous with his artistic peak. In 1860 he abandoned his family to sail around the Mediterranean on a photography project for the writer Alexandre Dumas, before settling permanently in Egypt, where he died in 1884.
‘For Le Gray to be photographing the sea, the boats, the sunlight on the water — there’s such a huge amount of production that goes into it,’ states Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs at Christie’s. ‘You have all these kind of moments — the subject matter, the technique of the photograph, his vision. It’s the moment in time when all these things coalesce. It’s kind of incredible that any of these photographs have lasted.’
Main image at top: Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884), Bateaux quittant le port du Havre (navires de la flotte de Napoleon III), 1856-1857. Albumen print from wet collodion glass negative mounted on original board. Image/sheet: 12¼ x 16 in (31 x 40.5 cm). Mount: 17 x 24¾ in (43.5 x 62.7 cm.) This work was offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February 2016 at Christie’s New York and sold for $965,000
For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily