ORKING IN LATE nineteenth-century England, P.H. Emerson pioneered the creative use of the photogravure process. He considered it the most refined photomechanical technique and the ideal means of publishing his work. Beginning in 1887, Emerson published seven books heavily illustrated with his sensitive gravure images of life, labor and landscape in rural England. He learned the process from his friend Walter I. Colls, the country's leading photogravure printer. Emerson so emulated the ways of artist-etchers that he reportedly destroyed the printing plates once the editions were finished, ensuring the rarity of his prints.
Emerson—a distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson—popularized the notion of naturalistic photography. Trained as a medical doctor, he considered science the basis for art, but believed creative photographs must subtly suggest—rather than precisely record—images from nature. In this effort, Emerson advocated a type of focusing he believed replicated human vision: sharp focus for the central object and modest softness for the surrounding field. The Photogravure process was well suited to convey these ideas.
Emerson was a rugged outdoorsman, living among the landscapes and people he photographed. He wrote extensive texts to accompany his photogravure, describing the colorful individuals, rural livelihood and emphasizing the need to maintain the natural order. Much of his imagery is highly reminiscent of the paintings from Jean Francois Millet and other nineteenth-century artists who idealized rural life.