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White Gray Black

Peter Henry Emerson (British, 1856–1936)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

English photographer. He lived in Cuba and the United States until his widowed English mother took her two sons to England in 1869. He studied medicine at King’s College Hospital, London (1879), and later received a BA (1883) and a Bachelor of Medicine degree (1885) from Cambridge University. While at Cambridge he studied photography, and after a brief medical practice he left the profession in 1886 for photography and writing. After becoming a member of the Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1883, he achieved recognition writing for such journals as Amateur Photographer.

In East Anglia Emerson used his nautical skills and knowledge of natural history while photographing the fen country and its people. The results were albums such as Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (London, 1886), which he co-authored with the English painter Thomas F. Goodall (1856–1944), Pictures of East Anglian Life (London, 1888), Wild Life on a Tidal Water (London, 1890), On English Lagoons (London, 1893) and Marsh Leaves (London, 1895). These limited edition albums, which contained either platinotype (platinum) prints or photogravures, reveal Emerson’s sensitivity to pictorial values and his knowledge of country people and fishermen. The picturesque photographs, such as Gathering Water Lilies (1886; New York, MOMA), are balanced by careful descriptions, including some accounts of mistreatment of women and problems created by absent landlords and encroaching tourists. Photographs, such as the platinotype Towing the Reed (1885; Rochester, NY, Int. Mus. Phot.), suggest Emerson’s interest in French realist artists, particularly Jean-François Millet.

Emerson’s claim that photography was a pictorial art, ‘superior to etching, woodcutting [and] charcoal drawing’ (Emerson, 1886, p. 139), rested on his idea of Naturalism. He considered his theory scientific and called for ‘differential focusing’, which, supposedly, would give effects similar to human vision. Through use of a long focus lens, diaphragm and camera-back swings, the main subject could be made relatively sharp while other areas were rendered softer. Achieving a faithful impression satisfied his belief that nature was the scientific first principle of art. He advanced this theory, along with diatribes on other photographic approaches, in articles and in lectures before the Royal Photographic Society and the Camera Club (London), which he helped to found in 1885, as well as in his book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889). He scorned the art-like combination print and took issue with its chief proponent Henry Peach Robinson in the photographic press. He also opposed retouching, ‘dodging’ and gum bichromate printing. He advocated platinum printing or photogravure and suggested new exhibition techniques. In 1890 the chemists Ferdinand Hurter and Vero Charles Driffield published experiments on the relationship of exposure and development that Emerson mistakenly interpreted as proving the mechanical limitations of photography in controlling tones. A conversation with a noted artist, possibly Whistler, led him to renounce photography as art, in a black-bordered pamphlet entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1890), which he had printed privately. With the third edition of Naturalistic Photography (1899) he reiterated that photography was mechanical and not art.

As the photographic contest judge for the Amateur Photographer in 1887, Emerson discovered Alfred Stieglitz and awarded him first prize for A Good Joke (1887). In later years Emerson published lists of medallists, designating silver or bronze medals to photographers whom he admired, among them Julia Margaret Cameron and Nadar. The Royal Photographic Society awarded him its prestigious Progress Medal in 1895. He remained bound to his purist aesthetic, and, although he continued to photograph in the early 20th century, he was no longer a leading force. The straight photography aesthetic, however, has prevailed in much 20th-century photographic art.

John Fuller
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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