Peter Henry Emerson


Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936)


British photographer who promoted photography as an art form and developed the aesthetic of ‘naturalistic photography’


Born in Cuba to an American father and English mother, Emerson lived in the United States until 1869, when his widowed mother brought her two sons back to England. He was educated at Cranleigh, where he excelled as both a scholar and an athlete, going on to study medicine at King’s College Hospital, London. He later received a BA (1883) and a Bachelor of Medicine degree (1885) from Cambridge University, where he also studied photography for the first time and joined the Photographic Society of Great Britain. It became his passion and, after a brief period of medical practice, he left the profession in 1886 to pursue a full time career in photography and writing.

Emerson’s first subjects were the farming communities and fishermen of East Anglia and these photographs, published in such books as Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886) and Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888), are an intimate documentation of rural English life in the late-nineteenth century. He soon became convinced that photography was a medium of artistic expression superior to all other media because it reproduces the light, tones, and textures of nature with unrivaled fidelity. He was repelled by the contemporary fashion for composite photographs, which imitated sentimental genre paintings. In his handbook, Naturalistic Photography (1889), he outlined a system of aesthetics, which decreed that a photograph should be direct and simple and show real people in their own environment, not costumed models posed before fake backdrops or other such predetermined formulas.

Emerson’s theories centred on science as a basis for art and he advocated a type of focusing he believed replicated human vision: sharp focus for the central object and modest softness for the surrounding field; a technique still widely employed by photo journalists today. He executed his prints in photogravure, an etching technique he learned from his friend and fellow photographer Walter I. Colls; and was so keen to emulate the ways of artist etchers that he reportedly destroyed the printing plates once the editions were finished, ensuring the rarity of his prints.

In true Cranleigh style Emerson continued many interests outside his chosen field; he was a naturalist, a skilled billiards player, the founder of a rowing club and an active member of the Royal Meteorological Society. In later life he appeared to eschew his earlier theories, possibly influenced by the many artists in his circle of friends, and in 1891 he published a black-bordered pamphlet ‘The Death of Naturalistic Photography’ in which he recanted his opinions. Despite this change of mind, his initial views remained influential and formed the rationale of much 20th-century photography.