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P.H. Emerson's naturalistic photography

Video transcript
- [Voiceover] My name is Steven Hyde. I am the great- grandson of P.H. Emerson. He is my mother's grandfather. He came from actually a very distinguished American family distantly related to Ralph Waldo. P.H. Emerson was born in 1856 in Cuba and he spent the first eight years of his life there on his father's sugar plantation. In 1864, which was in the middle of the American Civil War, the family moved to Delaware and then when P.H. Emerson was just 11, his father died. His mother was English and when her husband died she decided to come back and from then on Emerson was brought up in England. I think he adjusted pretty well, although it is my belief that he didn't truly fit in. I think he was always slightly an outsider. Emerson then went on to study medicine at King's College London. He continued with his athletic pursuits, playing a lot of rugby, and did very well at his medical studies. Bit by bit, he came away from practicing his medicine. He devoted his life to photography and also to nature. He combined his two passions and this is where we find Emerson at his most eloquent, both visually and indeed in his writing. Right from the very start, Emerson was aware of the importance of limited editions and unlike many of his fellow photographers, he did see his photographs as high art and he wanted to preserve the artistic status of the photographs. Accordingly, he published the books in limited editions and then broke the negatives after he had printed the books. In his first book, "Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads," Emerson most successfully portrays people. Although most of the photographs are posed, they seem fairly natural and they portray people at work and at play when we come to the gentry shooting. He also really fell in love with the people of Norfolk. He liked them. He thought they were unpretentious, noble people doing a hard day's work, often unrecognized. In his writings on them, he quite often used the vernacular language they spoke in. I do think that Emerson was to a certain extent idealizing the life of the worker and he believed very much in the integrity of the simple life of working the land, lack of sophistication, and simplicity. In fact in many of his books, he finds an honesty and a beauty in the lives of people who work the land. "Marsh Leaves" was the last of Emerson's books and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful. It's very spare in its subject matter. This is possibly as a result of the fact that in 1894, the year in which most of it was photographed, was on of the coldest on records. The photographs are very pure, simple, almost abstract in their subjects. The photographs are not of life and vigor. They are of the end of something, and it perhaps is very fitting that Emerson ended with these. I feel he didn't have any further impetus, any energy left to carry on. I mean how could he after he had already announced that photography wasn't an art? He came back to it because it's strange, you know, once you give something up you don't actually totally realize quite what a big part of you you are giving up. But by that stage it was too late. He never really could recreate the passion and the energy which he had as a young man and although 39, 40 seems a very early age by our standards in which to give up what he was doing, he had no need to carry on. He could enjoy the good life from then on. All the time that Emerson was indulging himself in Norfolk, he did keep very much focused on the issue of whether photography was an art or not. A lot of what he was trying to achieve there was simplicity and an integrity which ran against the tide of what most of photography was doing at the time. Emerson believed in two main aspects. The first was that photographs should not be totally sharp in every respect. You should have what's called differential focusing, which was that when you actually looked at something, you focused on one thing but everything else tended to fall back into a sort of slight lack of focus. Even that which was the main subject shouldn't be totally sharp in his point of view. The other aspect which Emerson believed that photography should concentrate upon is not to do too much in terms of what we would call post-production. As in, you should take a photograph and you should not muck around with it in the darkroom afterwards. This is what he called naturalistic photography. This was very much counter to what was the norm at the time. In 1889, he published his thesis in naturalistic photography. Later, he had this complete change of mind. He published a black bordered pamphlet entitled, "The Death of Naturalistic Photography," in which he stated, "I have, I regret it deeply, compared "photographs to great works of art "and photographers to great artists. "It was rash and thoughtless and my "punishment is having to acknowledge it now. "In short, I throw in my lot with those who say that "photography is a very limited art. "I deeply regret that I have come to this conclusion." I think Emerson came to this conclusion mainly because he was frustrated by the limitations of photography as it was possible at that time. If he wanted to take a beautiful photograph, he had to go out with a massive large format plate camera, see the image upside down on the ground glass screen, cover himself with a black cloth to keep out the daylight so he could see what was going on. He then, if he wanted to get the differential focusing that he wanted to achieve, had to do this focusing in the dark, with it upside down. He then had to compose what he saw in terms of the subject matter in a way that looked spontaneous and natural. So in the end, what he had to put up with was a contrived photograph, not a distillation of a moment, but a creation of a moment. I think this was the thing that frustrated him so greatly and I think this was the thing that led him to change his mind as to whether photography really was an art or not because it was just such an incredible problem for him to solve.