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Wealthy, well-educated, opinionated and confident, Peter Henry Emerson has left his mark on the history of British photography as a connecting link between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Born on the 13th May 1856, Emerson spent the first years of his life on his parents’ sugar plantation near Encrucijada, Cuba. When his father became ill in 1864 the family moved to Wilmington, Delaware. In 1869 Emerson moved to England with his mother, following the death of his father. Emerson attended Cranleigh School and then matriculated at King’s College, London, but completed a medical degree at Clare College, Cambridge in 1885.
Move to Photography
Emerson bought his first camera in 1881 to use on bird watching trips with his friend, the ornithologist, A.T. Evans. In the same year he married Edith Amy Ainsworth and wrote his first book on their honeymoon. In 1885 he was involved in the formation of the Camera Club of London and hired a yacht with his brother to sail along the Norfolk Broads. During the trip Emerson met the painter Thomas Frederick Goodall, a follower of the French Naturalistic style of painting, who influenced Emerson’s interest in replicating nature in photography. The following year he was elected to the Council of the Photographic Society and, although considered one the best medical students of his generation, gave up his career as a surgeon to dedicate himself to photography. Emerson was predominantly a naturalist and used photography to capture the landscapes of England, mainly around Norfolk and Suffolk. He quickly established himself as a major voice in the debates raging about the importance of photography in relation to art. Intelligent and well educated but obstinate in his opinions and often deemed arrogant, Emerson quickly riled many of his competitors. He was passionate and dogmatic, earning him notoriety in the industry but also extensive publicity.
In 1886 Emerson published his first book, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, co-authored with Goodall. An anthropological study of the people of East Anglia, the platinum prints show the way of life of fishermen, reed gatherers and farmers along the waterways. Emerson was unsatisfied with the lack of control he had over the print production and subsequent books, On English Lagoons (1893) and Marsh Leaves (1895) were published with photogravures made from plates that he made himself. Publishing his books in small runs of only a few hundred copies, he set his prices high to ensure that they would become collectible.
Emerson published his stance on the capabilities of photography as an art form in a pamphlet called Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art in 1889. The essay was controversial in advising that realism could replace contrivance in photography. The predominant style in Victorian photography involved moralising story-telling scenes articulated through highly detailed prints. Emerson contested Henry Peach Robinson’s technique of combining multiple negatives, saying ‘cutting out figures and pasting them in white spaces’ meant that the relationship between the figure and the landscape could never be accurately represented. He argued that photography should see in the same way as the human eye, with one area in focus and others out of focus. Described as ‘a bombshell dropped in the midst of a tea-party”, Emerson introduced an entirely new approach to photography, at odds with the established practice of the medium.’
In 1891, however, Emerson staged a dramatic reversal of opinion and published another pamphlet, The Death of Naturalistic Photography. Having changed his mind, he wrote that the accurate representation of nature through photography was not the same as art. His reservations lay in the fact that the relationship of tones in a photograph was fixed and could not be altered by the photographer. He recalled unsold copies of Naturalistic Photography and wrote to his friend James Harvard Thomas that he was considering giving up photography, saying, ‘I wish to God I had never seen a camera.’ Emerson went on, however, to argue that photogravures could be considered art.
Emerson continued to take photographs into the 1920s (although no prints from this period have survived) when he was in correspondence with Alfred Stieglitz. In 1924 he began to write a history of artistic photography, completing the manuscript just before his death in Falmouth, Cornwall, on 12 May 1936. Emerson was hugely influential on the development of early twentieth-century photography and is now considered a predecessor of the Photo-Secessionist movement and early modern photography.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Royal Academy of Arts and the V&A; the Musée d’Orsay (Paris); and George Eastman House: International Museum of Photography and Film (Rochester, NY), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), The Museum of Modern Art (New York), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.