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)
Emerson’s final photographic book, the culmination of Emerson’s artistic development, Marsh Leaves was published five years after he renounced the belief in photography’s fine art status. In many ways paradoxically his most artistic volume, it is composed of most personal writings, only obliquely linked to his most exquisite images of pure landscape. Self-consciously composed as a conclusion for his decade in the photographic arena, it is his final statement of art and life, as well as a farewell to the private pictorial sphere that East Anglia had been to him. Emerson’s sixteen photo-etchings are delicate, lambent, and elegiac. The landscape is lovely but unreachable, wrapped in mist or touched by frost, unpopulated and nearing abstraction. Although emphatically rural and regional, unlike the cosmopolitan and international decadence of much fin-de-siecle art, its elegiac tone was perhaps responsible for its continuing relevance. Historians today see it as predicting the direction of the next century’s fine art photographic practice. – Imagining Paradise, p. 193.
“It is one of the most beautiful books about isolation and solitude, perhaps death, ever made, and Emerson’s spare, evocative pictures were seldom equaled by the later Pictorialists.”- Parr & Badger.
Although published in 1895, the photographs were taken before the end of 1891. The deluxe edition (bound in morocco and white linen) was limited to 100 copies while the ordinary edition (bound in blue cloth) was limited to 200 copies. A ‘popular’ edition was not illustrated. The total edition was 300 copies. The total edition was 300 copies; both editions are now very rare. The Truthful Lens no 54
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)
Newhall, Nancy. P. H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography As a Fine Art. New York: Aperture, 1976. (frontis)
Newhall, Nancy. P. H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography As a Fine Art. New York: Aperture, 1976. p. 245.
Weaver, Mike. British Photography in the Nineteenth Century: The Fine Art Tradition. Cambridge [United States: University Press, 1989. p. 211.
MET Accession Number: 2014.301
Getty Object Number: 84.XB.696.7
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.
Hammond, Anne, The Etching Revival and the Photogravure: A Graphic Aesthetic for Photography; Impact 6 International Multi-Disciplinary Printmaking Conference