b. 13 May 1856; d. 12 May 1936
Many photographic historians claim that Peter Henry Emerson made a greater impression on Victorian photography than any of his contemporaries. An outstanding scholar, he practised medicine before abandoning it, at the age of 26, to take up photography. Though some of his work was included in books (he was an authority on wild life in Norfolk), he remained essentially an amateur.
At this period perhaps the leading photographer of the day was Henry Peach Robinson, who had published an influential book, "Pictorial Effect in Photography" - a book which ran to several editions. Emerson condemned this book out of hand, particularly disliking the contrived photography by Robinson, Rejlander, and Julia Margaret Cameron and saw this approach as arresting the development of photography as a medium in its own right, with no need to emulate styles of painting.
Perhaps by then the time was right for a new approach. Photographic materials had evolved somewhat; new faster materials were appearing, making photography outdoors rather different from what it had been in earlier times.
In 1886 he was elected to the Council of the Photographic Society, and embarked upon a series of lectures to put forward his views. Three years later he published an influential (if controversial) book entitled "Naturalistic Photography for students of Art" which one writer described as "like dropping a bombshell at a tea-party." In it he made the case for photography in which truth and realism would replace contrived photography.
"Photograph people as they really are - do not dress them up" was his main message: "The photographic technique is perfect and needs no...bungling"
He also very firmly rejected the retouching of pictures, which he called "the process by which a good, bad, or indifferent photograph is converted into a bad drawing or painting".
In effect he was advocating that one should treat photography as a technique in its own right, and not to seek to imitate other art forms.
Emerson also argued that a photographer should imitate the eye. He claimed that one only sees sharpness in the centre, and that the image is slightly blurred at the periphery, and therefore suggested that one should make a photograph slightly out of focus in order to achieve that effect, merely ensuring that the image in the centre is sharp. In his book he wrote: "Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into something else, often so subtly that you cannot quite distinguish where one ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature"
This was a new departure. Up till then photographers had tried to get everything sharp; they may not always have succeeded, but that was their objective. Now Emerson was advocation that photographers should not
Some photographers greeted Emerson's ideas with enthusiasm, particularly George Davidson. Another was Frank Sutcliff, who had a studio at Whitby. However, his ideas did not go down well with other contemporaries. H.P.Robinson wrote: "Healthy human eyes never saw any part of a scene out of focus"
whilst Emerson retorted, in an uncompromising manner: "I have yet to learn that any one statement of photography of Mr. H.P.Robinson has ever had the slightest effect on me except as a warning of what not to do...."
and described Robinson's book (Pictorial Effect in Photography) as "the quintessence of literary fallacies and art anachronisms."
Emerson was not the easiest of people to get on with, and was inclined not only to make sarcastic and vitriolic remarks but also to erupt into a fiery temper. His emphasis on technique is probably what led to his own undoing; he had begun to believe that photography could be reduced to technical rules and principles. Finding that he could not achieve this, he became frustrated and finally (possibly angered by the success of the Impressionism movement) he renounced naturalistic photography in a black-bordered pamphlet entitled "The death of Naturalistic Photography" (1890). He wrote: "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 my lot in with those who say that Photography is a very limited art. I deeply regret that I have come to this conclusion..."
In 1895 Emerson was awarded the Royal Photographic Society's Progress Medal for work in the advancement of artistic photography. Until then he had denounced medals, but in 1925, typical of his vanity, he then started awarding his own "Emerson" silver and bronze medals to others, some posthumously. Among the fifty-seven who gained his approval in this manner were Hill and Adamson, Nadar, Hippolyte Bayard, Julia Margaret Cameron, and an "unknown French photographer in Paris, 1865, for an unknown lady with a cigarette"! The reason for these awards never became clear; some have suggested that this was yet another way of perpetuating his name.
Despite his egotism and unforgiving nature to those who disagreed with him, his work succeeded in laying down the foundations of a new, unsentimental type of work, and laying the groundwork for the Photo-Secession movement.
© Robert Leggat, 1999.