Peter Henry Emerson and
American Naturalistic Photography
May 3—September 7, 2008
Minneapolis, April 22, 2008—America’s first movement of creative photography and its revolutionary founder, Peter Henry Emerson, are the subjects of a new exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA.) Nearly one hundred naturalistic photographs by Emerson and twenty other photographers will be on view May 3 through September 7, 2008. Drawn largely from the MIA’s permanent collection, these sensitively portrayed images span the movement’s history from the 1890s to the 1930s. Other images on display include those by Edward Curtis, Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Troth, and Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr.
Organized by the MIA, “Peter Henry Emerson and American Naturalistic Photography” will travel to the Palmer Art Museum (Pennsylvania State University) in University Park, and to the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke. A catalogue, the first in-depth study of the subject, accompanies the exhibition.
Peter Henry Emerson (British, born Cuba, 1856–1936) spent his early years on his family’s sugar plantation before moving to England as a teenager. A physician and a scientist, he took up photography at age 26. He formulated naturalistic photography in 1889 when he published his groundbreaking book, Naturalistic Photography for the Students of the Art. In it, Emerson defined a new style of camera work and made a case for photography as a fine art. He advocated simple compositions, differential focusing, and nature as subject and inspiration. He advised creatively inclined photographers to make images that read as one harmonious whole by choosing a single point of interest and downplaying all surrounding detail. By sharply rendering only the primary subject of an image and making everything else ease into moderate softness, he introduced an approach he believed mimicked normal human vision.
Following Emerson’s lead, other naturalist photographers in the United States took nature as their muse and consequently spawned a movement of naturalistic photography in this country. Like Emerson, these photographers spent considerable time communing with nature and carefully studying its elements. They photographed the land in all its forms and seasons, as well as the devoted individuals who farmed and fed it. Many lived in or near rural areas, giving them easy access to unbridled nature. American naturalists were content to work close to home, essaying the everyday and ordinary.
Nature presented a wide variety of subjects for these photographers. Henry Troth, for instance, regularly photographed the fields in rural Pennsylvania, while William B. Post and Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr., became known for their winter landscapes and studies of snow. Flowers and gardens were fertile material for Edwin Hale Lincoln, while Theodore Eitel concentrated on the trees of Kentucky. Beyond pure landscapes, the naturalists photographed the sky, farm life, ocean shorelines, and recreational activities such as boating and bicycling.
A number of American naturalistic photographers revealed strong ethnographic interests. Mirroring Emerson’s examination of traditional coastal inhabitants of England, several photographers turned their attention to the indigenous American and immigrant cultures. Most notable among them were Doris Ulmann and Edward S. Curtis. Ulmann initially photographed New England religious groups, such as the Mennonites and Shakers, but soon directed her attention to African Americans of the Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the South. Curtis spent his career documenting Native American tribes, not only in pictures but also in the written word. His multi-volume set The North American Indian, published between 1903 and 1930, includes more than two thousand photographs, and remains the most exhaustive study of the subject.
Alfred Stieglitz also admired Emerson’s sensitive images and absorbed his revolutionary theories. Even as he moved on to making and promoting Modernist work, he conceded the naturalistic movement still had currency in the 1930s. In 1933, he and Emerson corresponded for the last time, only three years before the latter’s death. Stieglitz concluded his letter by writing, “Not long ago I had your portfolio of gravures in my hand and also your book Naturalistic Photography. Both took me back many years–and both seem still alive.”
Published in conjunction with the exhibition, Peter Henry Emerson and American Naturalistic Photography is a beautifully illustrated catalog and the first major examination of American naturalistic photography. Written by Christian Peterson, Acting Curator of Photographs at the MIA, the book investigates a distinct and defining movement in the history of photography and includes early work by such leading pictorialists as Alfred Stieglitz and Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. The book rediscovers some significant photographers and puts the imagery of Edward S. Curtis and Doris Ulmann into a new context. The catalogue is available for purchase in the MIA’s Museum Shop.
About the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), home to one of the finest encyclopedic art collections in the country, houses more than 80,000 works of art representing 5,000 years of world history. Highlights of the permanent collection include European masterworks by Rembrandt, Poussin, and van Gogh; modern and contemporary painting and sculpture by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Stella, and Close; as well as internationally significant collections of prints and drawings, decorative arts, Modernist design, photographs, prints and drawings, and Asian, African, and Native American art. General admission is always free. Some special exhibitions have a nominal admission fee. Museum hours: Sunday, 11 A.M.–5 P.M.; Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 A.M.–5 P.M.; Thursday, 10 A.M.–9 P.M.; Monday closed. For more information, call (612) 870-3131 or visit www.artsmia.org.