The Army
of the Second Empire

The Camp at Chalons
under the Second Empire

The Civilian Environment
around the Camp at Chalons



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Florence Le Corre

(translated from the catalogue "Une visite au camp de Châlons sous le Second Empire : photographies de Messieurs Le Gray, Prévot...", Paris : musée de l'Armée, 1996, pp. 130-131).

Gustave Le Gray,
a poet with a passion for excellence

Jean-Baptiste Gustave Le Gray (1) was born August 30, 1820 in Villiers-le-Bel, in the Seine-et-Oise département, to a middle class family. He studied painting in the ateliers of Picot and Delaroche, the latter passionate about photography : in this workshop Le Gray would meet Le Secq and Nègre with whom he founded the Société héliographique (heliographic society) in 1851. He lived in Italy from 1843 to 1846, and would afterward bring back paintings of the Roman countryside and portraits. Some were exhibited, without a notable success, at the Salon of 1848. (2)

Le Gray began working on the daguerreotype in 1847. As a painter he was without exceptional talent, but thereafter he would show himself to be an excellent and eclectic photographer. Here his artistic sensitivity and his interest in chemistry would be fully articulated. Gustave Le Gray would be the inventor of new photographic procedures, he will then perfected them, and demonstrated the multiple usages of photography. He was an advocate of the use of the collodion by 1849 which would be later improved upon by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. Le Gray was most interested in the paper negative, the use of which he brought to a new level; he also invented the dry wax paper negative. He published his Traité pratique de photographie sur papier et sur verre (a practical treatise of photography on paper and on glass) in 1850, which had three editions, each once a little more complete (3).

He began photographing the forest of Fontainebleau in 1849 and was heralded as the photographer of light. His talents would quickly be acknowledged: his work was represented at the first French exhibition of photography; the exhibition of the Produits de l'Industrie in 1849; and at the Salon of 1850, nine of his prints were exhibited in the Graphic Arts section (4).

In 1851, he and the daguerreotypist Mestral participated in the Mission héliographique, which was backed by the Commission des Monuments historiques: he photographed monuments that were on the list for restoration in Touraine and in Aquitaine. This job would permit him to take up documentary photography and in 1852 he put together an album that included eight views of the Salon of 1852 at the request of the Beaux-Arts director.

Le Gray would go to battle against those who considered photography nothing more than an industrial product: "For myself, I hold onto tmy hope that photography not fall into the domains of industry or commerce, but enter into the arts, which is its true and only place and the path on which I will always try to advance it", he wrote in 1852. (5)

As an unreserved defender of photography as a fine art, he would be generous with his findings: he published his discoveries (see above) and trained many students to whom he communicated his passion, among them Méhédin, Eugène Delacroix, Le Secq, Adrien Tournachon or Maxime du Camp. His atelier served as a gallery for other photographers' works and he would not hesitate to give away any of his own, as Nadar recounts: "The excellent Le Gray [...] exhausted his stock by giving away prints to each one of his visitors.".(6) A passionate artist, he bore the costs entailed in obtaining the most beautiful and precise pictures : "Perhaps some would find that these operations would diminish the returns on a print, by the care given, by the expense of costly chemicals. I will demonstrate that these are not considerations to which one must be attached. The progress of photography is not in making a good deal, but in the quality of the print".(7)

His work was commissioned several times by the Imperial family: the portrait he did of the Prince-President in 1851 is well-known as are his superb photographs of the Empress Eugénie. He photographed the French ships returning from Crimea in 1855; in 1856, he fixed the movements of the French flotilla leaving for Spitzberg and photographed the imperial yacht La Reine Hortense. He authored in 1857 a photographic reportage of the military camp at Châlons-sur-Marne, which was very probably ordered by the Emperor, as Charles Bousquet reports: "H.M. has charged these gentlemen [G. Le Gray et B. Masson] to reproduce, by photography, the principle military scenes for which the camp will be the theater, adding to this a panoramic view of the camp, certain picturesque scenes from each of the encampments of the Guard, and portraits of the generals and superior officers, both French and foreign, who will stay at the Camp of Chalons, be they commanders, or guests of the Emperor".(8) Le Gray put his science and sensibility in the service of this command. His portraits, which we would less interesting today, correspond to the style of the period. But he really engaged himself in his views of the camp. He photographed the regiments and in particular the zouaves, the "zou-zous" in their "picturesque" dress lent themselves willingly to his shoots.

The snapshot did not yet exist, so he photographed maneuvers from a distance and repeated the same shot several times. He conveyed the movement of the camp, which could not be reproduced, with an important series of images that translate the intense activity of the camp. Certain among these are imprinted with a wonderful poetry. He lightened and made uniform his skies in order to focus attention on the subjects photographed. To give a wider view of the area, he used panoramas; the one of the camp, absent of human presence has a strange and phantom-like quality that reproduces all the same the immensity of maneuvering grounds.

The centering of images in his photographs, altogether unusual for his period, attests to the modernity of his regard : he excelled in the art of using shadows, to magnify the brilliance of the uniforms using an angle that gave his images greater force. He liked to create unexpected symmetry, to linger over a detail of seeming unimportance that would become the center of a very composed picture and assemble a subtle intertwining of road, group of cavalrymen, and horizon, rendering the immensity of the camp almost palpable. His talent would find its best expression in the photographs of marines, one of his favorite subjects; the subtlety of these reach the point of the abstract at times.

But personal ruin was around the corner: he opened a sumptuous atelier in 1856 on 35, boulevard des Capucines in Paris (9) and was afterward overrun with debt. The competition with carte de visite photographers (10) was fierce, and Le Gray, faithful to his principles, would not give in to producing commercial photography.

The year 1860 marked a turning point in his life : his dissolved his company and took off for the Near East with Alexandre Dumas. In Sicily, he photographed Garibaldi and the ruins of Palermo. His voyages continued in Syria and Lebanon - he has left superb pictures of the ruins of Baalbek - then he reached Egypt where he gave drawing lessons and pursued his activities as photographer privately.(11) He probably died in Cairo July 30, 1884 (12).

Another witness to the camp at Châlons : G. Prévot

Very little information remains about G. Prévot, who was born in Bapaume in 1820. He signed photographs of parks and many officers' portraits in cartes de visite form, with the address : "5, boulevard Montmartre near the théâtre des Variétés, Paris". He gave himself the title Photographer of the Imperial Guard.

Just as Le Gray, Prévot put together a reportage on the camp at Châlons; his was from 1866. His photographs must have been sold commercially in wallet-size, but Prévot also put together an album, in 32 cm x 44 cm format, very close in spirit to Le Gray's work(13). He presented the camp in seventy-four plates, showing groups of officers and the different kinds of workers on site: carpenters, plumbers, saddle-makers, the outskirts of the camp, as well as photographs of two paintings, The cook and The hunt, that recall the drawings of Bénédict Masson. A series of small photographs represent the uniforms of the principal regiments at the Chalons camp in 1866 make up a gallery of portraits in the manner of Le Gray.

If the pictures are of a greater technical consistency than Le Gray's - the definition of his prints is often better, the tones are uniform from one to the next, none of them needed touching up - they in no way attain the poetry or subtlety of the other photographer. They are nevertheless an interesting witness to the evolution of the architecture and camp activities from 1857. They display, by their presentation identical to the Le Gray albums, how much the latter marked the history of photography.

1. His name is spelled Legray on certain official acts even certain photographs, especially in the beginning of his career.

2. E. Parry Janis, p.169.

3. See bibliography at the end of this work.

4. W.J. Naef, "Les débuts de la photographie en France", Regards sur la photographie en France au XIXe siècle, Paris, 1980, p.51 and note 116 p.67.

5. Le Gray, La Lumière, February 14 and 21, 1852.

6. Nadar, Quand j'étais photographe, [s.d.], p.203.

7. Le Gray, Photographie. Traité nouveau, théorique et pratique, 1852, p.70.

8. Bousquet, p.246.

9. L'Illustration, April 12, 1856, pp.239-241.

10. Twelve of these portraits cost twenty francs,"when it had cost up until then fifty or one hundred francs for one" (Nadar, op.cit., p.206)

11. He would send photographs that were reproduced as engravings in Illustration as well as a few prints that were exhibited at the Exposition universelle of 1867.

12. D. Le Guilchet, "Un grand nom de la Photographie française du XIXe siècle: Gustave Le Gray ou l'illustre inconnu de Villiers-le-Bel", La Gazette du Val d'Oise, February 7, 1990, p.3.

13. This album, the only one found for the moment, is housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (call number le 53(4)). A manuscript dedication reads in translation: "Offert à Monsieur Antonio Maria de Fontès Pereira de Mello ministre de la guerre en Portugal par G. Prévot photographe de la Garde impériale 5 boulevard Montmartre Paris" (To Mister Antonio Maria de Fontès Pereira de Mello Minister of War in Portugal by G. Prévot photographer of the Imperial Guard 5 boulevard Montmartre Paris).

[A Visit to the Chalons camp under the Second Empire]

[The Imperial Quarter] [The Zouaves] [Billeting] [Maneuvers] [Mass] [Sculpture at the Chalons Camp] [Nighttime Scenes]