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Getty Museum Features 19th Century French Photographer  Gustave Le Gray - 2002-07-11

The works of one of France's leading photographers of the 19th century, Gustave Le Gray, are on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. His subjects range from the monuments of Paris to the beaches of Normandy and the ancient temples of Egypt.

His photographs are technically masterful, from his first daguerreotypes to his albumen prints, the early photographic processes in use from the 1850s to 1880s. Gustave Le Gray was also influential, training some of France's leading photographers and writing an important treatise on photography.

Weston Naef, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, says the pioneer photographer was a technical innovator, but is even more important as an artist. He says Le Gray could see beauty in unexpected places. "For example, the wonderful picture of a rake on its side in a garden, a subject that is not notable for any reason except the poetic beauty of that particular moment in time that he observed," he explains.

The curator calls Le Gray "a lyric poet with the camera," and says he was also a romantic, capturing seascapes in a way that had not been seen before in photographs.

"When he turned his head and his camera another direction, it was to the sky and the water, to create extraordinary pictures that have an equal lyricism but are addressed to the grandeur or nature itself," says Mr. Naef. "And so he was a person was not afraid to try to do something that he knew could result in failure."

And that, according to Weston Naef, set the tone for art and photography in the 20th century, when artists abandoned classic themes and began to experiment.

Gordon Baldwin, associate curator in the Getty's department of photographs, explains that Le Gray's work is special for its breadth and varied subject matter.

"He made portraits of the imperial family, that is, Napoleon III and his wife, Eugenie, and the prince imperial, their child," he says. "He made landscapes, he made seascapes, which were a new subject for photography. He made studies of the camp of Chalons, a military training camp that Napoleon III had set up, which he was commissioned by the emperor to document. And finally, at the end of his life, he lived not in France but in Egypt, and he made a great series of photographs of the ancient temples along the Nile."

Mr. Baldwin says the photographer ended up in Egypt accidentally. "He had started on a cruise on a boat with Alexandre Dumas, the great novelist," he notes. "The intention was to go around the Mediterranean. Dumas would write about the places they went, and Le Gray would photograph them. They had a falling out. Dumas abandoned him on the island of Malta. He went from Malta to Lebanon, in stages, and then to Cairo."

Le Gray would stay in Cairo for more than 20 years, becoming part of the French expatriate community. He was effectively barred from returning to France because of his large debts there. He ended his career as an art teacher in Cairo, dying at the age of 63.

Gordon Baldwin says Le Gray's works have some value as historical documents. They include scenes of the damaged Sicilian city of Palermo after the Italian general Garibaldi conquered Sicily in the 19th-century drive to reunify Italy. And there are numerous pictures of Paris, with its bridges, streets, monuments and churches.

"Sure, you can look at those pictures of Paris and see what life in Paris was like in part, and see the great transformations that Napoleon III had begun to make to the city of Paris," says Mr. Baldwin. "But it's really for his artistic vision that he's prized. The fact that he was superb technician means that the prints have had real durability and are in wonderful condition today, but it's the breadth of his artistic vision that's important."

More than 100 Le Gray photographs will be on display in Los Angeles through September 29.