Peter Henry Emersonu2019s u2018naturalisticu2019 approach made him an influential figure in the history of photography, writes David Clark


Above: This portrait of Peter Henry Emerson was published as the frontispiece of the book The English Emersons, which was published in 1898 for private circulation. Only 50 copies were printed. © Portrait Image Courtesy of a Private Collection

In the mid-19th century, it was accepted practice for photographers to use several negatives when making a single print. Leading ‘art’ photographers of the day, including Oscar Rejlander (1813-75) and Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), perfected methods of ‘combination’ printing that seamlessly montaged as many as 20 or 30 negatives. In doing so, they overcame photography’s technical limitations and created results that were comparable 
with contemporary paintings.

In 1889, however, the general acceptance of this approach was challenged by Peter Henry Emerson. His pamphlet, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, was famously described by one commentator as ‘a bombshell dropped into the midst of a tea party.’ In the pamphlet, Emerson scorned the use of multiple negatives as contrived and artificial. He argued that photography should be concerned with the ‘naturalistic’ and faithful representation of reality on its own terms, rather than in the imitation of another art form.

Emerson was, by that time, an established and respected photographer. Born in Cuba to wealthy Anglo-American parents, he 
had grown up in Cuba and later Delaware, USA, but when his father died in 1867, 
the family relocated to England. He later studied medicine at university in London 
and Cambridge before beginning a career as a surgeon.

However, his medical career was short-lived, and his growing interest in photography and the natural world led him to become a full-time photographer in 1886. In that same year he published his first book, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. The book, produced in collaboration with the painter Thomas Goodall, included 40 of his idyllic platinum prints of people working in the Norfolk landscape, alongside his written descriptions of rural life in the region. The book, which was a great success, showed Emerson’s deep respect for the traditional ways of living that were disappearing as industrialisation advanced.

One of the most famous photographs from the book is ‘Gathering Water Lilies’ . Superficially, it appears to be a romantic scene of a couple in a boat on 
the Norfolk Broads, but in accordance 
with the book’s theme, it actually depicts two people at work – the woman is collecting water-lily flowers to use as bait for fishing.

Emerson followed this limited-edition book with others celebrating rural themes, including Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888) and On English Lagoons (1893). He regarded his photography as fine art and thought carefully about the style and content of the images he wanted to produce. The results of these reflections were made public through his then-controversial articles in Amateur Photographer and in lectures at the Camera Club in London, which he helped found in 1885. His views were fully expressed in his Naturalistic Photography pamphlet of 1889, in which he defined naturalism as ‘the true and natural expression of an impression of nature by an art’, and declared that photography’s purpose as an art form 
was the accurate representation of the 
world around us.

Emerson felt that this would be best achieved by using differential focus, by which the subject could be kept in sharp focus while the rest of scene was rendered softer. This could be done through using a long lens or camera-back swings and he believed this effect was more true to human vision than showing the whole scene in sharp focus.

Two years later, however, in a black-bordered pamphlet entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1891), Emerson declared that he had been wrong. ‘I have compared photographs to great works of art, and photographers to great artists,’ he wrote. ‘It was rash and thoughtless, and my punishment is having to acknowledge it now.’

Emerson came to this decision after scientists Hurter and Driffield published the results of their pioneering work on sensitometry in 1890. He interpreted their conclusions as providing evidence that there were inherent mechanical limitations in controlling tones in photographic printing. He was also influenced by the negative views on photography’s artistic status held by a friend who was a prominent painter (believed to be James McNeill Whistler). ‘In short,’ Emerson regretfully concluded in the pamphlet, ‘I throw in my lot with those who say that photography is a very limited art.’

Despite this declaration, he continued making photographs. His final limited-edition book, Marsh Leaves (1895), showed a marked change in style towards a minimalist, almost abstract approach and is generally considered one of his best books.

In later life, Emerson continued to photograph but without the passion of earlier years; he neither published nor exhibited his work. Instead, he wrote detective fiction and other books on diverse subjects, including the rules of billiards and the Emerson family’s genealogy. He also wrote a book on the history of artistic photography, which was completed shortly before his death, although the manuscript was lost and never published.

Emerson held strong views and his passionate defence of them prompted public disagreements with the photographic establishment. In his day, he was regarded as an outspoken character who divided opinion. However, his initial views on photography as a distinctive and important art form, together with his purist aesthetic, went on to have an influence on much 
20th century photography.

Biography

1856: Peter Henry Emerson 
born on 13 May in Cuba, 
where his father is a 
sugar-plantation owner
1864: The family moves to Wilmington, Delaware, USA
1867: Emerson’s father dies and his mother moves the family back to her native England
1879-85: Studies for a degree in medicine at King’s College, London, and Clare College, Cambridge, and becomes 
a surgeon
1882: Begins to take photographs and to exhibit his work
1886: Publishes his first book, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. He abandons his medical career
1889: Publication of his pamphlet Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art
1891: Publishes The Death of Naturalistic Photography, 
in which he recants his 
earlier views
1895: Publishes his final book of photographs, Marsh Leaves. In the same year, the Royal Photographic Society awards him its Progress Medal
1900: The RPS honours him with a major retrospective exhibition
1936: Dies on 12 May in Falmouth, Cornwall, a day before his 
80th birthday

Books and Websites

Books: The only book on Emerson’s work that is currently in print is Peter Henry Emerson and American Naturalistic Photography by Christian A Peterson. Others, including The Old Order and the New: Peter Henry Emerson and Photography, 1885-1895 by John Taylor, are available second-hand on www.amazon.co.uk

Websites: Emerson’s images can be seen by searching on www.scienceandsociety.co.uk. They can also be found in the image collections on www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk and www.vam.ac.uk.