The Art of the Photogravure
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April 23rd, 2007

At Auction…

 

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Sotheby’s Sale N08387

Lot 69 Stieglitz, The Steerage (large format) 12,000 – 18,000 USD

Lot 136 Mapplethorp, A Season in Hell 10,000 – 15,000 USD

Lot 137 McDermott and McGough,The Metallic Plate: The Art of Photography 7,000 – 10,000 USD

Sotheby’s Sale N08309

Lot 35 Coburn, New York  10,000 – 15,000 USD

Lot 36 Steichen, Rodin, Le Penseur (large, signed) 8,000 – 12,000 USD

Lot 37 Strand, Camera Work 48 10,000 – 15,000 USD

Lot 38 Stieglitz, The Steerage (from Camera Work) 5,000 – 7,000 USD

Christies Sale 1825

Lot 0230 Camera Work (complete) 150,000 – 250,000 USD

Bonhams & Butterfields Sale 14799

Lot 448 Stieglitz and White, Torso (from Camera Work) 3,500 – 5,500 USD

Lot 578 White, Alvin Langdon Coburn and His Mother, 1,500 – 2,000 USD

April 13th, 2007

A Natural Eye for a Fading Time in England

ART REVIEW – from the Los Angeles Times
By Leah Ollman

Peter Henry Emerson took both sides in the late 19th century debate about photography’s status as an art. First, he fiercely defended the medium’s expressive potential, laying out his case in a landmark 1889 book. A year after its publication, however, Emerson reversed his stance and asserted that photography’s technical constraints trumped its artistic possibilities after all.

The debate itself — carried out not just internally, Emerson versus Emerson, but also heatedly in photography journals and associations — comprises a crucial but remote chapter in the medium’s history. A century later, the arguments have receded, become quaint, while Emerson’s photographs endure — deeply beautiful, evocative works that make the most convincing case of all for the medium’s power.

 

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Emerson, born in 1856, spent his childhood on his family’s sugar plantation in Cuba and in the U.S. but settled permanently in England as a teenager. He took up photography in the early 1880s, using it almost exclusively to explore the marshlands and rural lifestyles of the coastal region of East Anglia. Over a decade, the period covered in the Getty Museum’s sumptuous show, "The Old Order and the New: P.H. Emerson and Photography, 1885-1895," he published six books and two portfolios of photographs and text on the area.

Rail travel had recently made the East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk accessible to tourists, shifting land values and threatening the traditional ways of the region’s farmers and fisher folk. Several other photographers published travel guides to the area and its attractions, but Emerson adopted a more anthropological approach, keyed to understanding and preserving the manners and customs of the locals. In attitude, he aligned with John Ruskin and William Morris in championing pre-industrial labor; aesthetically, he found inspiration in paintings of ennobled peasantry by Jean-Francois Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage.

Emerson’s photographs showing fowl hunters, hay gatherers and reed cutters make poignant records of passing ways of life. They also manifest what Emerson regarded as the essence of photography — its ability to present a naturalistic image, from life. To him, that meant replicating the way the eye registers a scene, with the object of chief attention in sharpest focus and the rest more softly defined. His notion was deemed radical in its day, an upstart challenge to the more popular practice of combination printing, joining multiple negatives to create a narrative scene in crisp focus from edge to edge.

One of Emerson’s most exquisite images, and a prime example of his concept of naturalistic photography, is "Gathering Water Lilies," printed in platinum in the 1887 masterwork "Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads." Emerson’s composition leads the eye directly to a white blossom being lifted from the water by a woman leaning over the edge of a rowboat. Dense reeds behind and tree branches to one side seem to shelter the boat in its placid pocket of the marsh. The picture is a harmonious gem but also part of an informative chronicle of labor: The lilies served as bait of sorts for a type of fish caught in bow nets, like the one folded behind the boat’s oarsman.

The exhibition, organized by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England, in association with the Getty, surveys well Emerson’s practice, his context and his contemporaries.

It concludes with selections from his final photographic project, the graphically spare, atmospherically rich "Marsh Leaves" (1895). Hung next to kindred lithographs by Whistler, these final pictures form a coda of understated drama to Emerson’s photographic career. Reductive and unsentimental, they distill the unpeopled landscape to silhouetted forms in lush, charcoal tones. Their vast, empty spaces invite philosophical reflection.

Emerson could be an arrogant showman (issuing medals with his own likeness to photographers he deemed worthy) and a great wit (publishing his renunciation of photographic art in the form of a funeral notice). Above all, he was an impassioned, sensitive observer committed to both visual and emotional truth. "Remember," he wrote to students of photography, "that your photograph is a rough index of your mind; it is a sort of rough confession on paper."

April 6th, 2007

Emerson Exhibit at the Getty

Emerson_06_06.jpgFrom The PressTelegram.com
By Jim Farber, Staff Writer

PETER HENRY Emerson is the most important and influential 19th-century photographer of whom you’ve probably never heard.
Born May 13, 1856, in Cuba, the son of a British sugar plantation owner and fourth cousin to Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was briefly in America during the Civil War before moving to England, where he attended Cambridge University. Emerson was a renowned athlete and outdoorsman, a physician, a self-styled anthropologist, a devoted Darwinian, a prolific writer/lecturer and a vitriolic critic of those who contradicted his philosophy of photography as "pictorial art." For the last 23 years, one of the great collections of Emerson’s published work has been resting serenely in the vaults of the Getty Museum. Now these remarkable albums are on display as part of a major collaborative exhibition "The Old Order and the New: P.H. Emerson and Photography, 1885-1895." "Why didn’t we display them before?" the Getty’s curator of photography, Weston Naef, asked, as he presided over the exhibition’s opening in March. "There are about 18 published volumes. And if you bring all 18 out and open each to one page, they would only fill two very large tables." The key to making the exhibita reality, he said, was to form a partnership with an existing collection in which the pictures were removed from their original texts. That partner turned out to be the Museum of Photography, Film and Television at Bradford (recently renamed the National Media Museum) in Yorkshire, England. "We borrowed an exhibition they had created for their galleries," Naef said, " and reshaped it to suit our space and provide a context for our albums." The task of dovetailing the two collections, which showcase more than 150 photographs, publications and related ephemera, fell to Anne Lyden, the Getty’s associate curator of photography.

Working with her English counterparts, John Taylor and Philippa Wright, the three curators chose a theme for the exhibit based on the title of one of Emerson’s photographs: "The Old Order and the New."
In the photograph, which is rendered in the soft gray tones synonymous with platinum prints, three men drift in a sailboat somewhere on the Norfolk Broads, that unique landscape of lakes, streams and marshland common to England’s East Anglia. In the distance, an outmoded windmill lies dormant, while its mechanized replacement belches out a plume of steam. It was this confrontation between the old ways and the new, combined with the natural beauty of the region, Lyden said, that stimulated Emerson. "Emerson saw the modernizing effects of the Industrial Revolution having a terrible impact on the region, which was largely rural," Lyden explained. "He’s clearly of a different class than they are," she said. "He’s very affluent, and he’s coming to this very impoverished area. But he sees something heroic in these people and he wants to celebrate it. He gains their trust and immerses himself in their society. He even learns their dialect. At the same time, he takes a very Darwinian approach. And in his texts he refers to them as `peasants’ and `specimens.’ " Ironically, in his effort to preserve the traditions of the past, Emerson incorporated tools that represented the latest technological advancements in photography. His equipment included a stock of the new gelatin dry plates, which freed photographers from the necessity to process film in the field. He carried a light view camera with a relatively long lens that offered variable focusing, he incorporated a variable speed shutter capable of freezing action and he produced a 6-by-8-inch glass negative.

While the equipment Emerson used would have been familiar to the photographers of his day, his theories regarding photography as a means of observing nature were completely unique. And his guiding principle was the action of the human eye. "The image which we receive by the eye," he wrote, "is like a picture minutely and elaborately finished in the center, but only roughly sketched in at the borders. The principal object in the photograph must be fairly sharp. Everything else must be subdued … slightly out of focus." Today, we take Emerson’s "soft focus" approach for granted. But in 1886, when he published his first pioneering book of photographs and anthropological commentary, "Life and Landscapes on the Norfolk Broads," the effect caused quite a stir. When he elaborated upon his ideas in 1889 in an instructional treatise (and aesthetic diatribe) called "Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art," the effect, a writer of the day recalled, was like "a bombshell dropped in a tea party." Prior to Emerson, the notion of "fine art photography" meant slavishly mimicking the sentimental style favored by painters of Victorian England. Emerson’s work rebelled against it, embracing the new approach to landscapes represented by painters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and the members of the Barbizon school. Emerson called for an entirely new direction in photography based on observations drawn directly from nature, as exemplified in his most famous image, "Gathering Water Lilies." "Nature," he wrote, "is the great refiner, the poor man’s poet and painter."
Wandering through the galleries of the Getty Museum, it’s nearly impossible not to fall under the subtle spell of Emerson’s images, with their somber skies, wafting reeds, glittering streams and stoic "peasants."
Perhaps Nancy Newhall, noted photography critic and author, stated it best when she wrote, "P.H. Emerson was probably the first true photographer-poet."

jim.farber@dailybreeze.com