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LE GRAY AREA GETTY PAYS TRIBUTE TO A PIONEERING PHOTOGRAPHER.

Byline: Rob Lowman Entertainment Editor

THE FUTURE NAPOLEON III of France stares out imperiously in a photograph taken in 1852 by Gustave Le Gray (1820-84) that currently hangs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

To the monarch's left is a 1856 portrait of his wife, ``The Empress Eugenie at Prayer.'' In the sepia-toned picture, she is in a long, full dress, appearing to be in dreamy meditation, lost in a (spiritual?) reverie. To his right, there is a picture of a naked woman, ``Reclining Nude,'' taken the same year. The full-figured young woman sensually stretches out on a chaise longue, eyes closed but not asleep, lost in - what we can only assume - is a very different sort of reverie.

The portraits are part of ``Gustave Le Gray, Photographer,'' an exhibit of some 101 works by the pioneering French artist that was organized by the Bibliotheque National de France in Paris. The show at the Getty is the largest exhibition of Le Gray's ever held in the United States, and the museum has included many of its own prints.

Putting the emperor between his wife and a nude was the idea of Gordon Baldwin, the associate curator of photography at the museum, who liked the idea of presenting two sides of Napoleon III - one as a husband, the other as a man known for straying outside his marital vows. Baldwin is quick to note, though, that the emperor probably didn't know this particular model.

Yet this little bit of mischief also speaks to the tumultuous career of Le Gray, who photographed the famous - Alexandre Dumas (pere) and Giuseppe Garibaldi - as well as street musicians and soldiers, architecture for the government, and breathtaking seascapes and landscapes that seemed to point the way to the Impressionist painting that followed. It was an era when the art form was in its infancy and innovation was the word. Le Gray's life exemplified - as French critic Paul-Louis Roubert said - ``splendors and misery'' of photographers in the 19th century. So as you walk through the exhibition, you're not only seeing a world of the past but glimpsing a life.

Le Gray began his career as a painter but apparently met with little success. That's probably why he turned to photography, and he turned out to be good at it. Along with his artistic sense and wide-ranging curiosity, Le Gray ``seemed to have some innate gift for chemistry that he applies to photography,'' says Baldwin. A joke obituary by a friend in 1859 even describes him as a ``mad chemist.'' It is an era, Baldwin notes, when ``people are still inventing the profession.''

Quickly distinguishing himself in the field in the late 1840s, Le Gray reached the height of his success during the 1850s, when the French government commissioned him to document architectural monuments. But even while he was chronicling castles and official buildings, Le Gray was thinking of himself as an artist. His 1856 ``Brig Upon the Water'' (the Getty is presenting its own print) caused a sensation when it was exhibited at the London Photographic Society because Le Gray was able to capture an expressive sky. At the time, this trick seemed impossible because photographic materials, highly sensitive to blue and the length of the exposure needed to capture the sea or land, caused the sky to be overexposed and appear blank in pictures.

While show photographers painted in skies, Le Gray took another tack. Side by side in the Getty exhibition are ``Seascape With a Ship Leaving Port'' and ``Large Wave, Mediterranean Sea,'' both with the same sky.

``It occurs to him to make a separate negative of the sky'' to solve the problem of getting a detailed picture of both sky and sea, explains Baldwin. ``And then I think he begins to say, 'Wait a minute - I can choose the kind of sky I want.' So it becomes a composition devise and artistic choice.''

While this innovation fell by the wayside as photo techniques advanced, Le Gray's work likely influenced future artists. He took independent trips to the Fontainebleau forest to photograph landscapes. His picture ``The Road to Chailly'' (1852-56) seems to be a direct inspiration for Claude Monet's Impressionist 1865 painting of the same title. One thing you notice in Le Gray's landscapes are the contrasts - tree trunks in focus while masses of foliage seem in motion.

Le Gray would talk about the ``effect of a picture,'' says Baldwin. ``He likes the fact that the leaves blur a little bit, because he finds that to be aesthetically interesting and even desirable. He likes the effects of masses, particularly with paper prints, how things become soft in focus, how shadows become blocks on the paper.'' While it's impossible to establish any clear links between the two art forms, many painters in the era, including Monet, were aware of the photographic revolution. Another influence that Le Gray and other photographers of the era had on painters was that they got out of the studio.

Previously nature had often been idealized in painting in an attempt to make connections to the classical world. ``But Le Gray and painters of the era,'' says Baldwin, ``are looking at what's there. ... They're simply recording what's in front of them and part of that is motion.''

Despite his successes, Le Gray's life soon hit rough waters. His studio in Paris, which he borrowed money to start, failed, putting him in debt. Still, along the way he produced a number of extraordinary photographs that are on display at this exhibition, including those of the French army's summer training camp at Chalon and photographs of Paris that he hoped would pull him out of debt.

In 1859, he took up an invitation to accompany the famous novelist Alexander Dumas (``The Three Musketeers'' and ``The Count of Monte Cristo'') on a Mediterranean yacht cruise. The plan was that Le Gray would photograph while Dumas would describe the trip. They arrived in Sicily as Garibaldi was liberating of the island from Bourbon rule. The revolutionary asked Le Gray to photograph his exploits, including scenes of the damaged city of Palermo, which are part of the Getty exhibit.

What happens next is a matter of conjecture, but the upshot was that Dumas abandoned Le Gray on Malta. The photographer made his way to Egypt, where he lived out the last years of his life, never returning to France. Whether he was avoiding creditors or opting for a simpler life, Le Gray continued working, and his photographs of ancient Egyptian ruins are among his most distinguished.

Le Gray died in Cairo in 1884, a young woman (his mistress?) and a boy at his side. The photographer led a life that has been described as the stuff of romantic novels, but his reputation faded and he was largely forgotten in the artistic world. It's only relatively recently that he's been rediscovered. In fact, three of the prints in the Getty exhibit are being shown for the first time because they had been filed under ``trees'' at the Bibliotheque National de France.

Baldwin summed up the photographer's artistry this way: ``Le Gray is a restless intelligence, and he moves back and forth between subjects, but what is remarkable to me is that he brings considerable gifts to every single subject he tackles. None of them are humdrum.''

And neither was Le Gray's life, which through his striking photographs is also on display at the Getty.

GUSTAVE LE GRAY, PHOTOGRAPHER

Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood.

When: Through Sept. 29.

Tickets: The Getty is free but parking is $5. A reservation is required on weekdays. Closed Mondays. Call (310) 440-7722.

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1) In Gustave Le Gray's ``Mollien Pavilion, the Louvre,'' the lines of the paving stones lead the viewer's eye toward a then-new portion of the Paris landmark.

(2) Light and shadow heighten the drama of the 45-foot columns in ``Hypostyle Hall, Temple of Amun, Karnak.''

(3) ``Portrait of Giuseppe Garibaldi'' shows a confident revolutionary in the midst of liberating Sicily from Bourbon rule.

(4) In this self-portrait (1856-59), Le Gray uses the same oval shape and softly shaded edges that he provided for clients at his Paris studio.

Le Gray made ``The Great Wave, Sete'' with two negatives: one for the sky (5) Because of the relatively equal luminosity of sea and sky, ``The Brig'' was made with a single negative.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jul 18, 2002
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