Dr. Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936), was a British Photographer, born in Cuba from a wealthy background. After his father died, and with a threat of war from Spain, he was moved to England, where he finished his schooling and went on to Cambridge University to read medicine. While at University he excelled both academically and on the athletics field. By the time he was twenty-nine years old he had progressed to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Emerson had a great number of interests in life. As well as being a surgeon he was very enthusiastic about photography, and meteorology, he was also a great naturalist and an author of detective stories. On top of all this he was also a champion Billiards player! It was through his interest in bird watching that he acquired his first camera as a way of scientifically recording his interest. It was not very long before he had become greatly interested in the ongoing debate concerning photography as art and art as photography. Photographers at the time were going to great lengths to re-create paintings from life by using a camera rather than a paintbrush.
Emerson was of the idea that photography was in fact art, but strongly disagreed with the type of painting it was trying to imitate. He was adamant that it should follow the naturalist school of painters to which his friend T.F. Goodall was a member, and particularly admired the work of artists like Constable and Crome. There was a very influential book "Pictorial Effect In Photography" which was published at this time by one of the leading photographers of the day Henry peach Robinson. Emerson condemned this book out of hand, particularly disliking the contrived type of photography he thought was holding back the development of photography as a medium in its own right.
In 1889, three years after he had been elected to the Council of the Photographic Society, he published a very influential and somewhat controversial book entitled "Naturalistic Photography for Students of Art" This book was described by one writer as being "like dropping a bomb at a tea-party". In this book he was making the case that photography that recorded truth and realism would replace contrived photography. His main message was "Photograph people as they really are-do not dress them up" "The photographic technique is perfect and needs no ……bungling"
He also attacked the retouching of pictures, which he called. "The process by which a good, bad, or indifferent photograph is converted into a bad drawing or painting".
Having a scientific background Emerson soon added another side to the debate by observing that the human eye only focuses sharply on the main subject of its attention, and that everything all around this was in fact out of focus. He therefore concluded that to imitate this, a photograph should be slightly out of focus, merely ensuring that it is sharp at the main subject point. In his book he wrote "Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and its outlines fade gently into something else, often so subtly that you cannot quite distinguish where one ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature"
This of course was a very bold statement, as until this point all photographers had tried to make sure that everything in their pictures was sharp. Many photographers did in fact agree with Emerson, however his new ideas did not go down well with all his contemporaries. Henry Peach Robins wrote. "Healthy Human eyes never saw any part of a scene out of focus". Emerson's response to this was. "I have yet to learn that any one statement of photography of Mr. Robinson has ever had the slightest effect on me except as a warning of what not to do…" He went on to describe Robinson's book as "the Quintessence of literary fallacies and art anachronisms."
To illustrate his point Emerson and his friend T. F Goodall came to the Norfolk Broads, and produced a book called Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. This book was published in 1886 as a limited edition. Every copy of this book contained actual photographs, which had been stuck in by hand.
Emerson was so pleased with the results of this book that he gave up his medical career and began a very productive time with the production of photographic books. In four years he produced several books including. Idyls of the Norfolk Broads, Pictures from Life in Field and Fen, Pictures of East Anglian Life, and, Wild Life on a Tidal Water.
With his typical arrogant nature Emerson then seems to have abandoned photography saying, "The limitations of photography are so great that, though the results may and sometimes do give certain aesthetic pleasure, the medium must always rank the lowest of the arts". He went on to renounce the death of Naturalistic Photography in a Black Bordered pamphlet entitled "The Death of Naturalistic Photography". In it he wrote. "I have...I regret it deeply, compared photographs to great works of art, and photographers to great artists. It was rash and thoughtless, and my punishment is having to acknowledge it now... In short, I throw my lot in with those who say that Photography is a very limited art. I deeply regret that I have come to this conclusion..."