Peter Henry Emerson

Peter Henry Emerson



Peter Henry Emerson was born May 3, 1856, in LaPalma, Cuba. His father, Henry Ezekial Emerson was American, descending from the ancestral families of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel F.B. Morse and William Howard Taft. His mother, Jane Harris Billing, was English. Emerson spent his early years on a sugar plantation in Cuba. He also spent some time in Wilmington, Delaware during the Civil War and in England after his father’s death. He was educated at Cranleigh, a private boy’s school, where he excelled as both a scholar and an athlete. He earned a medical degree in 1880. In 1881 he wrote his first book and married Miss Edith Amy Ainsworth. Together they had five children.


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1886 was a very productive year for Peter Henry Emerson. He published his first album titled “Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Boards.” It consisted of 40 platinum prints of photographs exposed in the marshlands. His subjects were fishermen, reed gatherers and farmers, showing the simple beauty of their everyday lives as they integrated with nature. Emerson shared his excursions on the waterways of the Norfolk Boards with an artist friend, T.F. Goodall. Together they wrote a narrative text to compliment the photographs. Emerson published seven nature albums; “Marsh Leaves” was the last and considered his finest. Illustrated with 16 photographic etchings, it was published in 1895.

Emerson influenced the reorganization of photographic contests and exhibitions, simplifying the rules of judging, submission, and the manner of exhibiting photographs. While judging an amateur contest, he awarded the first place medal to a young German student named Alfred Stieglitz.

In 1889 Emerson published a textbook of photography titled “Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art.” It was his attempt to explain his philosophy of art and how it related to nature including the aesthetics and techniques of straight photography, and his view of art history. The book was referred to as “the bombshell dropped at the tea party” because of the controversy it generated. It fired the focus debate: Was completely sharp faithful to nature? How soft was soft enough? Did the human eye see the subject sharp with the edges falling off to soft? What was natural, or what tones were possible? Later, in January 1891, Emerson wrote a pamphlet declaring “The Death of Naturalistic Photography.”

Regardless of the controversy, he emerged as an important figure in pictorial photography. Peter Henry Emerson’s influence is seen today in classical art expressed by the medium of photography.

Emerson continued his involvement in photography; he began writing the history of artistic photography in 1924. He completed the manuscript just before his death at Falmouth on May 12, 1936, one day before his eightieth birthday. He was inducted into the Photography Hall of Fame in 1979.

By Vi Whitmire for IPHF