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Field Trip: The Photographs of the Circle of Gustave Le Gray, Paris

The Petit Palais in Paris was designed to showcase the best of French architecture, art, and style for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, and in 1902 it became a museum. I was fortunate to see one of their temporary exhibitions, a fascinating look at early photographic work that paved the way for Impressionist painting and modern photography. Modernism or Modernity: The Photographs of the Circle of Gustave Le Gray featured photographs from Le Gray and some of his top pupils, in one of the earlier examples of modern photography instruction. Le Gray, a trained artist, became interested in photography and photographic chemicals, and he started a school that influenced the course of photography. Le Gray began to deemphasize the importance of the technical aspects of photography, focusing his attention on the "Eye of the Photographer." He was also an important early advocate for photography as an art form. Here's what he wrote in 1852:
I wish that photography, instead of falling within the domain of industry, of commerce, be included among the arts. That is its sole, true place, and it is in that direction that I shall always endeavor to guide it.
He trained his pupils to see life through their lenses, capture the personalities of people sitting for their portraits, and tell a story and create a special mood with their composition. The exhibition showed an amazing range of subjects in 160 pitch-perfect prints on beautiful paper (Le Gray was a stickler for fine paper), from Le Gray and students including John B. Greene, Alphonse Delaunay, Olympe Aguado, Charles Negre, and Henri Le Secq.

Admiration!, Olympe Aguado, c. 1860 (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Strasbourg; Petit Palais, Museum des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris)
Spanish Women, Alphonse Delaunay, 1854 (private collection; Petit Palais, Musee des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris)

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