Every technological innovation boasts its gallery of pioneers; people who view the new item with wonder and see its potential. It’s difficult to imagine now, but less than 200 years ago, photography was one such invention. Like television sets and personal computers in the 20th century, photography in the 19th century was a medium that had few proponents and even fewer fans. But, Gustave Le Gray was among the handful of practitioners who put photography to good use.
Born near Paris, France in 1820, Le Gray became known for his photographs of landscapes and the sky. In 1856, he made this picture of the seashore at Normandy, France and simply called it “Seascape.” I emphasize “made” because no one really took photographs back then. The process was slow and arduous; the camera’s aperture had to attract enough light to burnish an image onto a glass plate. It took several minutes, which explains why the subjects of early portraits never smiled.
Le Gray, however, often used two negatives to capture the expanse of the scenery. He placed the negative directly on top of the photographic paper and printed in sunlight. The prints were then toned in a solution of gold chloride in hydrochloric acid. This resulted in a violet-purple color, with helped to stabilize the images and prevent them from fading over time. The two-negative combination allowed Le Gray to achieve a tonal balance between the sea and the sky when the picture was printed. The sunlight’s shimmer on the water made viewers initially think they were looking at a moonlit shoreline. For many people the result was breathtaking and almost spiritual.
Upon seeing one of Le Gray’s seascape photographs in 1857, a critic for the “Journal of the Photographic Society” wrote:
“From the midst of this ‘pother’ of dimness falls a gush of liquid light, full and flush on the sea, where it leaves a glow of glory…It is as when Jacob’s ladder of angels was just withdrawn, and the radiance above and below, where it rested on earth and sky, had not yet melted out.”
Le Gray seemed to comprehend the practical applications of photography, when he wrote in 1856, “Since its first discovery, photography has made rapid progress, especially as regards the instruments employed in its practice. It now remains for the artist to raise it to its proper position among the fine arts.”
Le Gray composed a set of photographs of the Normandy coast in the summer of 1856 and another set along the Mediterranean the following spring. They were exhibited first in London and then in Paris shortly afterwards. Le Gray quickly became a sensation. Unfortunately, his success didn’t last long, and he was bankrupt by 1860. He died in Egypt 1882.