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Peter Henry Emerson
He bought his first camera in 1882 and spent the next several years studying and experimenting in photography. By 1885 he was exhibiting his work and winning prizes widely. In 1889 Emerson published Naturalistic Photography a handbook detailing his approach and the theories he believed supported it. Although he did not publish or exhibit his work after 1900, Emerson's influence on photography was profound. He is often called the father of art photography and supported and recognized talent in other photographers. Alfred Stieglitz was first recognized by Emerson, who awarded him first prize in a competition. He also produced a book on Julia Margaret Cameron who was widely regarded as a photographic crank by many of her contemporaries.
Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads a book containing 40 platinum prints was published in 1886. He subsequently published several more books that reproduced his photographs in high quality photogravure. Influenced by the arts and crafts movement, and in response to the industrial revolution, he frequently photographed farmers and fisherman at work practicing old trades and crafts that were rapidly becoming outdated. His landscapes recall a simpler time before the industrial revolution.
[Contributed by Lee Gallery]
Peter Henry Emerson was born in Cuba on 13 May 1856, where his family owned a sugar plantation. His father died in 1867 and in 1869 the family moved to England, where Emerson spent the rest of his life, taking British nationality. He studied medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1885, but never practised. In 1881 he purchased his first camera and it is for his photographs and for his writing that he is now best remembered. All of his published photographic work, with minor exceptions, appeared between 1886 and 1895.
Emerson was married in June 1881. In August 1883 he took a holiday in the coastal town of Southwold in Suffolk, in the part of England that was to become the inspiration and location for most of his subsequent work. Two years later, in 1885, Emerson returned to Southwold and, together with his brother, hired a yacht for a cruise on the Norfolk Broads. On this cruise he met the painter Thomas Frederick Goodall (1857-1944). Emerson and Goodall became firm friends and artistic collaborators and for the following six years Emerson’s photographic activities were concentrated mainly in rural Norfolk.
In 1886 Emerson, with Goodall as co-author, produced Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, a large book of forty platinum prints, with complementary text. Two more books followed in 1887. These were illustrated with photogravures. The platinum prints of Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads were of variable quality and it was possibly this experience that contributed to Emerson’s choice of photogravure for all his subsequent publications, although the close relationship between the methods and materials of photogravure and the artistic medium of etching was probably a more influential factor.
He was, however, at least initially, entirely in the hands of commercial platemakers, whose methods did not always meet his exacting standards. It was not until 1893 that Emerson had acquired sufficient skill to make all his own, unretouched, plates.
In 1889 came the book that was described by one of Emerson’s contemporaries as having the effect of ‘a bombshell dropped into the midst of a tea-party’. Emerson’s first edition of Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art. Detailed instructions were given on every aspect of photographic practice. A second, slightly revised edition followed in 1890.
In Naturalistic Photography Emerson was aiming to align photographic practice with contemporary movements in British art with which he identified. This brought him into direct conflict with the photographic establishment, personified by Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901).
Naturalistic Photography, in which Emerson prescribes methods, materials and techniques to be used by the student who wishes to follow his lead, would appear to describe, by implication, Emerson’s own working practice. A study of his published work, however, reveals this to be only partially true.
Emerson’s theories of Naturalistic Focusing caused controversy and confusion. He advocated the use in photographs of a restricted depth of field as analogous to that of the eye, and advised that ‘... it is always necessary to throw the principal object slightly (often only just perceptibly) out of focus, to obtain a natural appearance ...’ This, of course, simply shifts the focal plane elsewhere. In many of Emerson’s published photographs, an area of sharp focus may be found that, given his antipathy to retouching, he was unable to disguise.
During the second half of 1890 Emerson had begun to have some doubts about the artistic status of photography. In May 1890 Hurter and Driffield had stated that once a plate had been exposed, the ratios of the image densities were fixed and could not be altered during development. This subjective intervention was fundamental to Emerson’s claims for the artistic status of photography. He spent three months during 1890 testing, in practice, Hurter and Driffield’s laboratory results and reluctantly concluded that they were right.
Emerson’s justification of the status of photography as an artistic medium relied on the ability of the photographer to select and frame a subject; to adjust the focus and the focal plane to emphasise some parts of the subject and supress others; and, most importantly, to adjust the tonal relationships on the negative to match those as visualised by the photographer. He wanted the freedom of the artist’s subjective transcription of tones, even if this was at variance with their relative luminance. Science, however, denied him this freedom.
He came to the conclusion that photography was not and could not be art and in consequence he published, at the end of 1890, a pamphlet entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography in which he gave his reasons for this renunciation, as he called it.
Emerson did not, however, give up photography and continued to publish his work. In 1893 he published On English Lagoons, and in 1895 Marsh Leaves. He made the photogravure plates himself for these, his last two illustrated books.
Emerson’s last attempt to influence his contemporaries was his publication, in 1899, of the third edition of Naturalistic Photography, from which all references to the artistic status of photography were excised.
It is clear from Emerson’s correspondence with Alfred Stieglitz that he continued to take photographs into the 1920s, but no evidence of this output seems to have survived.
P.H.Emerson died in 1936, one day short of his eightieth birthday.
© David Stone - Used with permission (July 2007)
Works by P. H. Emerson, in chronological order of publication
© David Stone - Used with permission.
1. Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1887) with T. F. Goodall London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Illustrated with 40 Platinotypes [There was a rare deluxe edition of Emerson's first book in 1886, oblong folio, leather-backed vellum gilt, with 40 plates and the accompanying text leaves. All of the 25 copies were sold, and the original negatives and printing plates were destroyed. Swanns - New York, May 22, 2007, Sale 2115 Lot 62]
The plates included are:
2. Pictures from Life in Field and Fen (1887) London: G. Bell & Sons A portfolio of 20 photogravures with preface
3. Idyls of the Norfolk Broads (1887) London: The Autotype Co. A portfolio of 12 photogravures with introductory essay
4. Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888) London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Illustrated with 32 photogravures and 15 small half-tones in Collotype
5. The Compleat Angler (1888) by Izaak Walton London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Plates 2-28 by P. H. Emerson, photogravure
6. Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889) London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Second edition 1890 Third edition 1899
7. Pictures of East Anglian Life (1890) A portfolio of 10 prints selected from the book of the same title
8. Wild Life on a Tidal Water (1890) London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Illustrated with 30 photogravures
9. The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1890) London: The Author
10. Notes on Perspective Drawing and Vision (1891) Jointly with T. F. Goodall London: Warren, Hall & Lovitt
11. On English Lagoons (1893) London: David Nutt Illustrated with 15 photogravures
12. Marsh Leaves (1895) London: David Nutt Illustrated with 16 photogravures
The plates included are:
13. English Idyls London: A. G. Berry First published 1889, second, de luxe edition of 1924 illustrated with one plate from Marsh Leaves
14. Letters to James Havard Thomas, 1888-1914 Transcribed by Fiona Pearson A bound volume at the Local Studies Department, Norwich Central Library, Norwich, Norfolk, England
15. Emerson, P. H. and Goodall, T. F. (1891) Notes on Perspective Drawing and Vision London: Warren, Hall & Lovitt
Between September 1889 and March 1890 Emerson's 'Our English Letter' appeared in The American Amateur Photographer
• Callender, R.M. (2004) "'Dear Mr. Driffield ... ' : Letters of Peter Henry Emerson and Hurter & Driffield" in History of Photography, Winter 2004 London. Philadelphia, Taylor & Francis
• Gernsheim, Helmut (1962), Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960 London: Faber and Faber
• Gross, Jozef The Broadland Paysanniste in British Journal of Photography 12 December 1986 pp.1420-1423
• Handy, Ellen (ed.) (1994) Pictorial Effect and Naturalistic Vision: The Photographs and Theories of H. P. Robinson and P. H. Emerson Exhibition catalogue, with essays by Brian Lukacher and Shelley Rice Norfolk, VA.: The Chrysler Museum
• Harker, Margaret F. (1979) The Linked Ring London: Heinemann
• Jeffrey, Ian (1984) 'Peter Henry Emerson: Art and Solitude' in The Golden Age of British Photography 1839-1900 Aperture (Exhibition Catalogue)
• McWilliam, Neil and Sekules, Veronica (eds.) (1986) Life and Landscape: P. H. Emerson, Art and Photography in East Anglia 1885-1900 Norwich: Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts
• Merien, Mary Warner. 'The Lure of Modernity', Chapter 5 in Photography and its Critics, A Cultural History 1839-1900 CUP. Sycamore University
• Merien, Mary Warner. (1997) 'Peter Henry Emerson, The Taxonomy of a Crow's Nest' in History of Photography, Summer 1997 London. Philadelphia, Taylor & Francis
• Newhall, Nancy (1975) P. H. Emerson; The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art New York: Aperture
• Stone, D.J. (2000) ‘Peter Henry Emerson and the Pictorial Representation of Perception’ in The Photohistorian (The journal of the Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society), September 2000
• Taylor, John (1992) 'Aristocrats of Anthropology: A Study of P.H.Emerson and Other Tourists on the Norfolk Broads' in IMAGE Volume 35 Nos. 1-2 Rochester: GEH
• Taylor, John (1994) 'Behind Every Landscape Is a Woman: P.H.Emerson's Anxieties of Class and Gender' in A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist Imagination Manchester University Press
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) (1989) British Photography in the Nineteenth Century Cambridge: Cambridge University Press