‘Like a bomb at a tea-party’ – P H Emerson versus Peach Robinson

Emerson – Gathering Waterlillies, East Anglia 1886 – Getty Museum

Dr. Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) was a Cuban-born, American-raised British surgeon, naturalist, meteorologist, bird-watcher, champion billiard player and, for which he is remembered, influential photographer.

At a time when photographers were going to enormous lengths to recreate paintings – staging very artificial scenes (see Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away for the archetype) – Emerson insisted that the camera should capture “people as they really are – do not dress them up.” Many of his works feature the rural labourers of the Norfolk Broads going about their arcane business, gathering water-lillies or harvesting reeds.

Though defending photography’s right to be classed as a proper art form, Emerson argued for a naturalistic approach: “The photographic technique is perfect and needs no… bungling”. He called the then-popular business of retouching “the process by which a good, bad, or indifferent photograph is converted into a bad drawing or painting“, so one wonders what he would have made of Photoshop (which the Yard has described as Satan’s Snap Fixer).

Another radical Emerson argument was the notion that pictures should be slightly out-of-focus, to replicate the reality of human vision: “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.”

These arguments were laid out in an 1889 book called Naturalistic Photography for Students of Art, the effect of which one reviewer described as “”like dropping a bomb at a tea-party.” Certainly Peach Robinson objected, declaring: “Healthy human eyes never saw any part of a scene out of focus”.

Emerson’s retort? “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…”

During the Reed Harvest, 1886 – Gordon Fraser Gallery Limited

Snipe Shooting, 1886 – Joseph Bellows gallery
Share This Post

About Author Profile: Brit

4 thoughts on “‘Like a bomb at a tea-party’ – P H Emerson versus Peach Robinson

  1. noreply@blogger.com'
    August 17, 2010 at 08:34

    beautiful, if stagey pictures, and a terrific name in Peach Robinson!

  2. noreply@blogger.com'
    August 17, 2010 at 09:30

    Yes they do seem stagey, so when you consider that Emerson was the advocate for 'naturalism' it shows how stagey was the norm. Odd that photography had to (retro)progress towards naturalism.

  3. noreply@blogger.com'
    August 17, 2010 at 11:59

    I suppose they were made at a time when people still had to stand still for 2 minutes for each exposure, so it was probably for the best to arrange everybody in a nice way to begin with. The are lovely and painterly in their composition

  4. info@shopcurious.com'
    August 17, 2010 at 23:55

    Never mind the posing, the broads look damned fine too – and these are beautiful works of photographic art history (and geography).

Comments are closed.