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Peter Henry Emerson: nature and memory

'Gathering Water Lilies', 1886.
Platinum print, plate IX from
'Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads'
by Peter Henry Emerson

The Old Order and The New', 1886.
Platinum print. Photograph by Peter Henry Emerson.
An illustration from 'Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads'.
P. H. Emerson’s writings and photographs focused on photography and nature, the aesthetics of photography and the recording of nature. As an early  “conservationist”, the pristine landscape of East Anglia and its traditional ways of life (peasants, fishermen) in the process of being transformed and displaced by the combined threats of industrial and commercial progress and tourism, were his main subjects and preoccupation.  A quasi-pantheistic, romantic sensibility is expressed in his images, combined with a naturalistic purpose that searches for “truth” as the common denominator of both art, that is, culture and nature (natura naturans as the paradigm of artistic creativity), the projected unity of medium and subject: a naturalistic art, as he called it.

In many of his albums and photographic series, the literary description and the photographic document were created in similar fashion, as the immediate recording of experience. The subject however, as the medium of experience, that is, the artist himself, will (unwillingly or unconsciously) always have the upper hand and the last word in this quest for unconditional objectivity, a quest for the natural against the artificial, for the harmony of the world of nature against the troubled conditions of a civilization in the uncomfortable process of industrial growth, social change and cultural transformation.  The result is an idealized, romanticized image of the natural environment and of the social world of its inhabitants, these fisherman and peasants that are portrayed as more or less generalized beings in symbiotic relations with the world of nature, or as co-adjutants in the natural (autonomous) process of universal harmony. They are portrayed as belonging to a kind of self-sufficient microcosm, or “original” society, from which are excluded the realities of social class conditions, as well as the larger determining external structural hierarchies and related conflicts between the countryside and the urban centers of political and economic power.

But perhaps it is also fair to say that Emerson’s best works grew out of this “vivifying” particular soil of contradictory concepts and processes, as a kind of “autonomous” momentary synthesis of the question, that is, the challenge and the very “enigma” (artistic, epistemological, etc.) of photography itself, the quest for “photographic truth” as the (unattainable) “truth” of photography.

Marcelo Guimarães Lima


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