Peter Henry Emerson’s decade-long work to documented the people and landscape of the Norfolk Broads, a network of freshwater rivers, lakes, and marshes in East Anglia, on England’s eastern shore. Drawn to rural subjects, Emerson was fascinated by the region’s traditional ways of life and concerned that they were threatened by industrialization and tourism. From 1885 to 1895 Emerson used the latest photographic processes to document the region’s traditions and landscape, which he felt was in danger of disappearing. Emerson embraced the new technology of photogravure to further enhance his naturalist pictorial syntax.
Originally introduced to photography on bird-watching trips, Emerson’s work reflects the influence of the Realist school of painting, incorporating a photographic and specifically English sensibility into their artistic celebration of peasant lifestyles. Emerson was an early proponent of straight photography as an art form, eschewing both the undiscriminating emphasis of sharp focus rendering and the romantic vagueness of soft focus. Emerson’s subjective approach, enhanced by the ‘ambiance’ of the photogravure aesthetic aimed to replicate the experience of the human eye’s encounter with the world; His vocal advocacy of this ‘truthful’ photography saw him rise to a position of considerable and controversial influence within the contemporary photography establishment. His influential 1889 book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art outlined his thesis that photography’s ability to record nature truthfully was its most expressive one. He argued that the photograph should imitate nature rather than alter it.
Initially influenced by naturalistic French painting, he argued for similarly "naturalistic" photography and his photographs, in sharp focus to record country life as clearly as possible. His first album of photographs, published in 1886, was entitled Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, and it consisted of 40 platinum prints that were informed by these ideas. Before long, however, he became dissatisfied with rendering everything in sharp focus, considering that the undiscriminating emphasis it gave to all objects was unlike the way the human eye saw the world. Experiencing difficulty with accurately recreating the depth and atmosphere which he saw as necessary to capture nature with precision, Emerson adopted photogravure. After Life and Landscape, he published seven further books of his photography through the next ten years – all in photogravure. In the last two of these volumes, On English Lagoons (1893) and Marsh Leaves (1895), Emerson printed the photogravures himself. After the publication of Marsh Leaves in 1895, generally considered to be his best work, Emerson published no further photographs.
Middleton, C S, Payne Jennings, P H. Emerson, and G C. Davies. The Broadland Photographers. Norwich: Wensum Books, 1978.
Newhall, Nancy. P. H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography As a Fine Art. New York: Aperture, 1976. p. 219.
MOMA Object number 543.1967.10
Getty Object number 84.XB.696.4.11
National Gallery of Art 1995.63.1.j
MET Accession Number: 2008.669 (1–40)
Newhall, Nancy. P. H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography As a Fine Art. New York: Aperture, 1976. p. 189.
Carl Fuldner, ‘Emerson’s Evolution’, Tate Papers, no.27, Spring 2017, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/27/emersons-evolution, accessed 26 July 2017.
Taylor J. The Old Order and the New : P.h. Emerson and Photography 1885-1895. Munich: Prestel; 2006.