Skip to main content

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


Popular posts from this blog

Group f/64 Manifesto (1932)

Ansel Adams by Dorothea Lange

Group f/64 Manifesto
The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.
The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group.
Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the metier of the Group.
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are strivin…

Paul Strand: method and vision

Portrait, Washington Square Park, 1917

Pears and Bowls, 1916

Wild Iris, Maine, 1927

Wall Street, 1915

Portrait of Georges Braque, 1957

The “full acceptance” of reality is the method and goal of the photographer, observed Paul Strand. However, full objectivity has to be something different from a passive receptivity but must emerge from an active and vigilant attitude that requires the photographer’s control of his subject. Or rather, it requires the coming together of subject and object in the intervening space of the photograph, synthesizing and perhaps transcending both, a mediating space, both familiar and unusual, made of masses and voids, light and shadows, made of the equivalence of presence and absence,  of correspondences of vision and forms in the world, of the coalescence of equivalent forms in a frame, of a spatialized time and a space of  gradually superposed temporalities.

Marcelo Guimarães Lima


John Thomson - Street Life in London, 1877

John Thomson (1837-1921)
'Street Life in London England, 1877-8 Carbon print (woodburytype) Victoria and Albert Museum

The Photographs
In the late 1870s Thomson embarked on his most well known project, photographing the lives the people living on the streets of London.

'Street Life in London' was published in twelve instalments throughout 1877 and the beginning of 1878. Three of Thomson's photographs appeared in each edition with three stories mainly written by the journalist Adolphe Smith, who held reformist views and worked as the official interpreter for the TUC from 1886 to 1905.

With social problems gaining increased attention in the 1870s through the work of such men as Charles Dickens and the founder of homes for destitute children, Dr Barnado, these vignettes of survival among the poor proved popular with the public. The hopes and aspirations, values and needs of those portrayed were recognisable to the readers of other classes. The photographs added a gr…