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The Great Wave, Sète 1857, Gustave Le Gray
CREDIT: Victoria And Albert Museum, London

Leaders in their field - Gustave Le Gray

Studying stuff - layers the hard way

I had two cloudy nights in a row so time to do a little thinking. I had been contemplating how early photographers with their glass plate negatives managed to cope with landscape scenes in particular. I had experimented with the issues they had balancing the landscape and clouds and this led me to think about how their practice evolved to cope with the constraints of the early photographic materials.

My thoughts went back to some work I had seen some months earlier on a gallery visit in Washington DC. Here I had stopped to admire an original print by Gustave Le Gray "Brig on the water" taken in 1856. The cloudy skies, taken towards the sun were moody and threatening. However, to record the skies his seascape was underexposed - it looked almost moonlit.

Gustave's practice evolved to cope with the use of what we would now call layers and masks. For his print "The Great Wave, Sète 1857" he exposed two collodion-on-glass negatives, one exposed for the sky and one for the scene and then used them both masked to produce the final print. This allowed him to balance the tonal ranges and brightness of sea and sky.

Yes, you can see the join between the 2 layers so maybe an assessor would mark it down for that. But I encourage you to see beyond that, setting aside the expectations that come from modern technology. This was done in 1857, with glass negatives. Movement - capturing a moving wave with the materials of the time is a considerable feat. He was already gold toning his prints to visually enhance them. And Gustave was primarily an artist, mixing the art of composition with the then emerging science of photography.

There is a collection of his work in the V&A . For those interested in some contemporary background there are also some Journal articles on his work, written in the same period. A leader in his field of landscape photography at a time where practitioners had to do layers the hard way.

Image "The Great Wave, Sète 1857" is copyright Victoria And Albert Museum, London