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."