The J. Paul Getty Museum
- P.H. Emerson
- P.H. Emerson's naturalistic photography
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Peter Henry Emerson (1856–1936) championed a style of photography he referred to as “naturalistic.” A British citizen, Emerson was born in Cuba and spent part of his childhood in the United States. Traveling among different regions was not only central to his upbringing, but was also an important component of his work as an adult. Quoting the poet John Keats, Emerson asserted, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” on the title page of his 1889 treatise Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, arguing that art should imitate nature. In his photographs, Emerson rejected prevailing methods and subjects in favor of an approach that employed selective focus and used only a single negative to realize his prints, rather than combining negatives to create an image. His views sparked heated debate among photographers and critics, but Emerson passionately defended his approach as more realistic and truer to nature.
In or out of focus
At the time Emerson was working, the question of whether photographs should be in or out of focus—sharp or soft—was the subject of intense and occasionally angry debate within photographic circles. One school believed that photography’s defining characteristic was its ability to capture detail with clarity. Others felt that selecting the degree of focus in different parts of the photograph—using a technique known as differential focus—resulted in an image that was, in fact, closer to the effects that a human eye can perceive.
Differential focus was at the heart of Emerson’s photographic aesthetic. In keeping with the then-current scientific ideas about vision, he maintained that the human eye rarely sees anything fully in focus. Emerson therefore manipulated his camera’s focal plane to create areas in and out of focus. In addition, he advocated working outdoors in nature and composing the scene in the camera with a single shot. Emerson called his style of photography naturalistic, as it was taken from nature and left unretouched.
The photogravure print
Introduced in the 1880s, photogravure is a mechanical process using copper printing plates to transfer a photographic image and faithfully reproduce a photograph in quantities of a hundred or more. Emerson, who saw his work as pioneering in the field, was innovative in using the medium expressively to convey the atmosphere of the regions he visited (see image below).
Photogravures can be printed on different types of paper, from translucent Japanese tissue to textured cotton fiber. The finished prints achieve varying degrees of tone, ranging from charcoal black to bright white. Emerson favored the relatively new medium because his photographs could be reproduced in a manner that reflected his vision for naturalistic photography. His photogravure prints influenced a later generation of photographers, including Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, who took inspiration from the rich body of work Emerson produced from the late 1880s through the mid-1890s.
The lure of the overlooked
Emerson was often drawn to the uninhabited landscape—the flat marshland, the stretch of sky and water only occasionally disrupted by a rooftop or a sail. In his Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, he decreed that landscape itself could be a subject and source for inspiration: “Nature is full of pictures, and they are to be found in what appears to the uninitiated the most unlikely places.” At first glance, many of Emerson’s photographs seem empty. He ignored the crowds of tourists and amusements along the Norfolk Broads, as well as the fact that the region’s agriculture was failing. Instead, he turned his gaze to other aspects of the landscape, remaining engaged with nature.
Gathering Water-Lilies, shown above, is arguably Emerson’s best known photograph and certainly his most widely reproduced. Originally realized as an albumen silver print, the image was subsequently published as a photogravure in two highly successful editions before he produced the platinum version for Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, his 1886 publication with the painter T.F. Goodall. The subject, while seemingly peaceful and romantic, actually records two people working collecting flowers to use as bait for fishing. This context did not become clear until Emerson included the image in his book, which documented the various traditions of the people who worked the Norfolk Broads, a wetlands region on the coast northeast of London. To create the book, Emerson interacted with the locals, recorded their traditions, and presented a view of the countryside that was aimed at “lovers of art.”
Work and types
Once the railways made the Norfolk Broads (a selection of waterways in East Anglia) more accessible, tourism flourished, as this area was seen as a bucolic escape from the congested urban life of industrialized England. Emerson saw himself as an anthropologist of types. Through his photographs of East Anglian hunters, gamekeepers, farmworkers, and fishermen (see image below), he hoped to preserve, at least photographically, the traditional ways of life, which he believed were at risk of becoming obsolete with industrialization and the rise of tourism. His images presented idealized types that reflected his subjective vision of the countryside.
Although his photographs today appear to celebrate the worker as hero, Emerson did not advocate change within the fixed social order. In Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888), Emerson wrote: “Equality there can never be; the stern laws of heredity forbids that in utero. An anthropological aristocracy there must be; the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest declares it.”
In 1890, only one year after publishing Naturalistic Photography, Emerson published The Death of Naturalistic Photography, in which he renounced many of the tenets he had previously advocated. Nonetheless, his interest in selective focus photography and careful attention to the atmospheric effects of the gravure process came to greatly influence subsequent generations of photographers, particularly those who came to be identified as Pictorialists.
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Adapted from The Old Order and the New: P. H. Emerson and Photography, 1885–1895, exhibition at the Getty Center, March 27–July 8, 2007.
Want to join the conversation?
- With regards to the following passage: "In keeping with the then-current scientific ideas about vision, he maintained that the human eye rarely sees anything fully in focus. Emerson therefore manipulated his camera’s focal plane to create areas in and out of focus. In addition, he advocated working outdoors in nature and composing the scene in the camera with a single shot. Emerson called his style of photography naturalistic, as it was taken from nature and left unretouched"
I must say that I disagree with Emerson here. I think that an image that is fully in focus is still not able to be viewed entirely in focus by the viewer, but by intentionally blurring certain areas or sections of a photograph we force or manufacture where and how the eye will perceive an image. I must say that I feel a clean and crisp image definitely doesn't "hurt" the eye as much as a blurry one. I also find the experience of viewing a "crisp" or "high def" image (to use modern parlance) to be similar to looking around at nature with the naked eye and thus the more "naturalistic" approach than differential focus.(4 votes)
- does anyone know what camera he used? I need this for a school project. I need quick plz(1 vote)