Peter Henry Emerson
Biography | Bibliography
The English photographer, P. H. Emerson was a major influence in late nineteenth-century photography. A champion of a “naturalistic” aesthetic Peter Henry Emerson fought to have photography recognized as an art form in its own right. He rebelled against the “high art” photography of the day that was typified by the work of H.P. Robinson and O.G. Rejlander.
Peter Henry Emerson found this work to be sentimental and artificial. At a time when many photographers were struggling to imitate painting and painterly styles, Peter Henry Emerson devised his own standard for photography stressing natural settings and spontaneous poses. He also believed in focusing sharply only on the central object of a scene and allowing the rest to be slightly blurred. He believed this to be closer to the way the eye sees, rather than sharp on all planes as a camera lens can “see”.
He bought his first camera in 1882 and spent the next several years studying and experimenting in photography. By 1885 he was exhibiting his work and winning prizes widely. In 1889 Peter Henry Emerson published Naturalistic Photography a handbook detailing his approach and the theories he believed supported it. Although he did not publish or exhibit his work after 1900, Peter Henry Emerson’s influence on photography was profound. He is often called the father of art photography and supported and recognized talent in other photographers. Alfred Stieglitz was first recognized by Peter Henry Emerson , who awarded him first prize in a competition. He also produced a book on Julia Margaret Cameron who was widely regarded as a photographic crank by many of her contemporaries.
Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads a book containing 40 platinum prints was published in 1886. He subsequently published several more books that reproduced his photographs in high quality photogravure. Influenced by the arts and crafts movement, and in response to the industrial revolution, he frequently photographed farmers and fisherman at work practicing old trades and crafts that were rapidly becoming outdated. His landscapes recall a simpler time before the industrial revolution.
Ellen Handy, Pictorial Effect, Naturalistic Vision: The Photographs and Theories of Henry Peach Robinson and Peter Henry Emerson, Norfolk, VA: The Chrysler Museum, 1994.
Neil McWilliam, Veronica Sekules, Life and Landscape: P.H. Emerson Art and Photography in East Anglia 1885-1900, Norwich, UK: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 1986.
Nancy Newhall, P.H. Emerson : the fight for photography as a fine art, New York: Aperture, 1975.
John Taylor, The Old Order and The New: P.H. Emerson and Photography 1885 – 1895, New York: Prestel, 2006.
Peter Turner, Richard Wood, P.H. Emerson: Photographer of Norfolk, Boston: David R. Godine, 1975.