P.H. Emerson’s Marsh Leaves

Atmospheric vapor has taken pictorial legibility to the brink of dissolution. Looking for a lost world, we stumble upon a modern picture. — Robin Kelsey 2015

Marsh Leaves was Emerson’s last published book of photographs and contains his most distinguished and impressionistic work. Self-consciously composed as a conclusion for his decade in the photographic arena, it is his final statement of art and life.  The earliest body of photographic work to show Japanese influence, the images’ misty qualities are strongly reminiscent of Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes. Most of the images are minimalist to the point of nothingness – a distant tree or boat, the smudge of a distant shoreline…most were taken during winter or on damp, misty mornings.

P.H. Emerson The Lone LagoonMarsh Leaves, 1890

“ The artist who works in photography must not rest until he has mastered photo-etching: then he is completely equipped, and ranks with the etcher…for in etchings of all kind the choice of papers and inks is most vital. I hope in the future to print my own plates which I see is the only satisfactory method.” — Peter Henry Emerson

Emerson believed that photogravure was the perfect translation in ink of the aesthetic qualities of the photograph and learned to make gravures himself.  Command of the photogravure process enabled Emerson to harness the ink-on-paper aesthetic to powerfully render emotion. The plates of Marsh Leaves show an uncanny ability to attain the mood and feel of mists, smoke and fogs, of the brilliance of the sun on the water and in the melting frosts of early morning.  It does not seem possible these images were made in 1890-91; he seems to have entered a whole new period of the perception of form, detail, composition.  He belongs with Monet and the Post-Impressionists and even anticipates much later periods in art – the early Abstractionsts, for example.  Newhall, P. 103

Marsh Leaves is one of the most beautiful books about isolation and solitude, perhaps death, ever made, and Emerson’s spare evocative photogravures propelled the new medium of photography into the realm of fine art.

We are fortunate to have in the collection of a copy the rare Deluxe edition printed on Japanese vellum as well as a complete set of the 16 photogravures from the regular edition. The total edition was 300 copies; both editions are now very rare.


Foster, Sheila, Manfred Heiting, Rachel Stuhlman, and George Eastman House. Imagining Paradise: The Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at George Eastman House, Rochester. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007

Kelsey, Robin E. Photography and the Art of Chance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015.

Molderings, Herbert. [rezension Von:] Parr, Martin; Badger, Gerry: the Photobook : a History Volume 1. – Berlin : Phaidon, 2004.

Newhall, Nancy W. P. H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography As a Fine Art. New York: Aperture, Inc, 1975.


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