The Onion Field Davison, George  (British, 1854-1930)

"The earliest impressionistic photograph." (Gersheim)

This charming photograph, reminiscent of an Impressionist landscape, was awarded a medal at the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1890. Later retitled with a more descriptive and less nostalgic name, The Onion Field, Mersea Island, Essex (1890) was taken with a pin hole camera. According to photo-historian Helmut Gernsheim in his book, Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960, Davison, a follower of Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) wanted to soften the focus and to create an effect more akin to the beauty of a fine art print than that of a machine made image. The Times praised the photograph for its “atmospheric effects.” But his version or vision of Impressionism only angered Emerson, who apparently considered Davison’s ideas about photography to be misguided and spoke out strongly against him in one of the many internal disputes that accompanied the re-definition of photography. Initially, Davison caused nothing beyond conversation about the “fuzzy” school of photography but when he submitted an image late to an exhibition of the Photographic Society, the petty dispute broke out into a schism that led to a secession of a large group of the members.

Both Emerson and Davison were among the twelve founding members of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring along with Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), with whom Davison, called the “Lord High Executioner,” shared the duties of “hanging” the exhibitions. Emerson’s problem with Davison was, as shall be seen, that Davison used a pinhole camera to achieve a certain effect, while Emerson himself grounded his photography on scientific and philosophical concepts of human vision.

Reproduced / Exhibited

Beaton, Cecil, and Gail Buckland. The Magic Image: The Genius of Photography. London: Pavilion, 1989. p. 79

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present. , 2012. p. 144.

Crawford, William. The Keepers of Light. Dobbs Ferry: Morgan and Morgan, 1979. fig. 77

Daum, Patrick, Francis Ribemont, and Philip Prodger. Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888-1918. London: Merrell Holberton, 2006. p. 68

Frizot, Michael. New History of Photography. Place of publication not identified: Pajerski, 1999. Print P. 295

Gernsheim, Helmut. Creative Photography. Aesthetic Trends 1839-1960. [with Illustrations.]. London: Faber & Faber, 1962. p. 122

Harker, Margaret F. The Linked Ring: The Secession Movement in Photography in Britain, 1892-1910. London: Heinemann, 1979. pl 3.4

Kruse, Margret. Kunstphotographie Um 1900: D. Sammlung Ernst Juhl; Hamburg: Museum für

Kunst u. Gewerbe, 1989 pl. 246

Morrison-Low, A D, Julie Lawson, and Ray McKenzie. Photography 1900: The Edinburgh Symposium. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland, 1994. fig. 16

Marien, Mary W. Photography: A Cultural History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: SunSoft Press, 2002. fig. 4.7.

Sternberger, Paul S. Between Amateur and Aesthete: The Legitimization of Photography As Art in America, 1880-1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001 p. 43

Stieglitz, Alfred, Richard Whelan, and Sarah Greenough. Stieglitz on Photography: His Selected Essays and Notes. New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, 2000. p. 40

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. New York: Abbeville Press, 2008. no. 366.

Weaver, Mike. British Photography in the Nineteenth Century: The Fine Art Tradition. Cambridge [United States: University Press, 1989. p. 227.