The Lonely Fisher Emerson, Peter Henry  (British, 1856-1936)

Atmospheric vapor has once again taken pictorial legibility to the brink of dissolution. Looking for a lost world, we stumble upon a modern picture. (Kelsey)

Vapor, in the form of atmospheric haze, has long been used by painters to subdue detail and evoke mood. Leonardo Divinci’s use of atmosphere to soften contours was coined sfumato, derived from the Italian word for smoke or vapor.

By the 1880s when Peter Henry Emerson took the international stage, overall sharpness was the goal of most photographers and attempts to establish photography as a legitimate art were met by sharp criticism of its mechanical nature. A physician, Emerson understood the physiology of visual perception and believed that overall sharpness diminished a photograph’s capacity to elicit emotion – which he felt was an essential quality of art.

In addition to differential focus (selecting only one part of the image to be sharp), Emerson incorporated vapor and atmospheric haze into his photographs to imbue them with sentiment and poetry – an effort greatly enhanced by his embrace of the photogravure syntax.

Believing that “photogravure was the ultimate method of expression in monotone photography,” Emerson ultimately personally etched his own plates including those for his final book, Marsh Leaves (1895). Considered his final pictorial statement of art and life, the images were from scenes he described as ladened with “steaming breath”, “ethereal golden vapor,” and “whitening mists.”

These small intimate photogravures are regarded by many to be his greatest works. For more on the use of vapor in photography and photogravure see Photography and the Art of Chance by Robin Kelsey (Harvard, 2015)

Whistler’s influence was also felt in the basis of the New English Art Club, with which the photographer-critic P.H. Emerson was closely involved in the 1880s. Emerson’s seminal work Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889) provided historical and critical foundation for a whole generation of photographers. In his writings, he advocated the photogravure as the perfect translation in ink of the aesthetic qualities of the platinum print, eventually learning to make gravures himself. Emerson’s admiration of Whistler’s etched work is especially apparent in his book of photo-etchings Marsh Leaves (1895), in which he experimented with both the high-contrast, sparse etching style of Whistler and Hayden, and the full tonal range inherent in photography. (Hammond)

Emerson’s seminal work Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889) provided historical and critical foundation for a whole generation of photographers. In his writings, he advocated the photogravure as the perfect translation in ink of the aesthetic qualities of the platinum print, eventually learning to make gravures himself. Emerson’s admiration of the work of etchrs like Whistler’ss especially apparent in Marsh Leaves (1895), in which he experimented with both the high-contrast, sparse etching style of Whistler and Hayden, and the full tonal range inherent in photography. (Hammond)

Reproduced / Exhibited

MET Accession Number: 2014.301

Getty Object Number: 84.XB.696.7

References

Hammond, Anne, The Etching Revival and the Photogravure: A Graphic Aesthetic for Photography; Impact 6 International Multi-Disciplinary Printmaking Conference