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.
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."