P.H. Emerson’s Naturalistic Photography
P.H. Emerson’s Naturalistic Photography

– [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.

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