Emerson, Peter Henry


Peter Henry Emerson, photographer, artist, naturalist, physician, writer, died in 1936 all but forgotten by the art world he ignited in the 1880s. It took until 1975 and the publication of Nancy Newhall’s book, P. H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art, for the world to realise that he was one of the great pioneers of modern photography and how, through his determination and weight of belief, he had changed the perception of photography for all time.

Emerson entered photography in a blaze, casting aside the prevailing artistic attitudes. Convinced, that the photographic discipline had been constrained by an overdependence on topographical accuracy on the one hand and on manipulated pastiches of paintings on the other, he set about challenging the photographic establishment. He championed his technique of differential focusing, where only one part of the image was in sharp focus and all else fell away into being marginally less focused. He worked out an aesthetic based on photography’s unique powers. He wrote the first manual on straight photography as an art in its own right, which was aptly described as, a bombshell dropped at a tea party. He passionately believed in pure photography and its power to convey ‘truth to nature’. He was the first to utilise photography and text to explore the relationship with subject. He was tireless in his pursuit, a

whirlwind, enigmatic, opinionated, and brusque.

He railed against the leading exponents of art photography, saving his fiercest invectives for the likes of Henry Peach Robinson, with their combination prints, classical studies and sentimental pictorialism, that fed into the Victorian ideal of countryfolk and their ways. Robinson felt that it was beneath him to photograph labourers or peasants going about their lives and went to elaborate ends to recreate his saccharine fantasies in his studio.

Emerson meanwhile was explaining to a packed room at the Priory Hall in Great Yarmouth, that art was enslaved except when the artist went to Nature for his subject matter. And he did just that, spending months with his great friend, the painter Thomas Frederick Goodall, moored out on Breydon Water, in view of the sea-stained town, in a cranky old houseboat, the Electra, and a beery giant of a fisherman called Joey. He records in prosaic detail the characters he meets, or who drop in to visit him. Reading the text of Emerson’s Wild Life on a Tidal Water, we come to know the fisherman, Harnsee, the hunter Pintail, the smelt fishermen Crab and Cyclops and we join the crowds in the pubs discussing medicinal cures and ghosts.

Emerson was rigorous in his determination and his words and images speak not only for his supremacy as an artist but for those he photographed, and their way of life. Never before had text and image been paired together with equal attention given to both and in the ten years between 1885 and 1895 he produced eight astonishing portfolios of photographs, blending the scientific with the artistic, and in doing so launched photography itself on to a trajectory from which it never looked back.

He exited the world of photography in as dramatic a way as his entry and, in his enigmatic style, he left the stage with a blistering treatise on the Death of Naturalistic Photography. After his last and arguably his best portfolio, Marsh Leaves, which he published in 1895, he lay down his cameras and never took another photograph.

Emerson was born on La Palma Estate, a sugar plantation in Cuba to an American father and a British mother. He spent his early years in Cuba on his father's estate. During the American Civil War he spent some time at Delaware, but moved to England in 1869, after the death of his father. In 1879 he attended Clare College, Cambridge where he graduated with a degree in medicine in 1885.