1887. “Setting up the Bow-Net.” IMAGE: PETER HENRY EMERSON/ROYAL PHOTOGRAPHIC SOCIETY/SSPL/GETTY IMAGES
Life on the Norfolk Broads
Idyllic Images of the Waterways of Eastern England
Peter Henry Emerson promoted photography as an independent art form, rather than one that is dependent on the tradition of painting. He developed a theory of naturalistic photography’ and took photographs of working figures in natural settings, particularly in East Anglia.
Peter Henry Emerson was born Pedro Enrique Emerson in Casa Grande, La Palma, Cuba, on 13 May 1856, to a British mother and an American father of significant means. Following a brief period in the United States, the family went to England, where Peter Henry was sent to Cranleigh, a public school in Surrey. After a short time at King’s College, London (1874), he studied Medicine at Clare College, Cambridge (1874-79), and, embarking then on a career as a gentleman of letters, first bought a camera at the age of 26 to aid him with one of his hobbies, ornithology. However, he became completely devoted to photography, and rose to become one of the most influential photographers in nineteenth-century Britain.
Although Emerson essentially remained an amateur, he did publish eight books during his lifetime such as Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886) and Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888), and exhibited regularly until 1900. Much of his work focused on the rural life of East Anglia, and should be seen as a life- long anthropological study of the region’s people and traditions. This scientific approach to his photography tallies with his reputation as an academic with a fearsome intellect, and he became a well-known, somewhat notorious figure in the photographic circles at the end of the 1880s.
One of the notable characteristics of Emerson’s work was its simple technique and brutal honesty it was this that caused ruptures in the photographic industry at the time. British photography had long been trying to achieve an equal academic reputation to painting and in Emerson’s eyes, through the work of pictorialist photographers such as Henry Peach Robinson, had grown complex, derivative, and over-produced – some of Robinson’s images were compilations of up to 20 negatives. Upon his election to the Council of the Photographic Society in 1886, Emerson began a series of public lectures denouncing this method. His book Naturalistic Photography (1889) further expounded his views, celebrating a simpler, one-shot technique that celebrated the photograph for what it was. The effect of the book was described at the time as like dropping a bomb shell at a tea party’ Emerson was advocating a completely new approach to photography.
The honesty behind Emerson’s work was also reflected in subject matter that featured real, working people rather than staged models in costumes.
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