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 is Peter Henry Emerson’s (1856–1936) last published book of photographs and contains his most distinguished and impressionistic works. Self-consciously composed as a conclusion for his decade in the photographic arena, Marsh Leaves is his final statement of art and life. The images’ misty qualities, evoking the winter months or the damp, misty mornings on which he captured the scene, are strongly reminiscent of Whistler’s Nocturnes and can be considered the earliest body of photographic work to show Japanese influence. Most of the images are minimalist to the point of nothingness–a distant tree or boat, the smudge of a distant shoreline.

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 aesthetic qualities of the photogravure had the capability to perfectly translate in ink the powerful emotion of photographs. The plates of Marsh Leaves show the mood and feel of mist, smoke and fog, of the brilliance of the sun on the water and in the melting frosts of early morning. To quote the famed curator and art historian Beaumont Newhall: “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 Abstractionists, for example.”

Marsh Leaves is one of the most beautiful books about isolation, solitude, and, 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.

References

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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