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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Peter Henry Emerson

Other: Dr Peter Henry Emerson 
Other: P.H. Emerson 
Joint: Emerson & Goodall 
Dates:  1856, 13 May - 1936, 12 May
Born:  Cuba, La Palma
Died:  Great Britain, Cornwall, Falmouth
Active:  England
Naturalistic photographer. Often worked with the less well known Thomas Frederick Goodall (1856-1944). Influential in his lectures and writings on Naturalistic Photography, the belief that photography could express artistic and impressionistic truth as easily as any other art form, Emerson made his idyllic and beautiful studies of rural Norfolk life available in album form, exquisitely printed as platinum prints or photogravures, with explanatory text. He later recanted his views but was a strong and influential voice in the 1880s, along with Henry Peach Robinson and George Davison.
[Courtesy of Pam Roberts]

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Peter Henry Emerson
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

Emerson bought his first camera in 1881 and in 1885 founded the Camera Club of London. He was impressed by contemporary French painting, including that of the Impressionists, and argued for ‘naturalistic’ photography. For him, truth to nature consisted of accurately recreating the depth and density of space and atmosphere. Most of his pictures were taken in East Anglia in the 1880's, and his studies of landscapes, people at work, and scenes from daily life survive in the form of seven illustrated books, including 'Life and Landscape of the Norfolk Broads' and 'On English Lagoons'. 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Approved biography for Peter Henry Emerson
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

A major nineteenth-century British photographer, P. H. Emerson spearheaded naturalistic photography at home and abroad. He extensively photographed and wrote about the landscape and inhabitants of his country’s southeastern coastline. Most of his exquisite images were issued as photogravures, in limited-edition books and portfolios.
Peter Henry Emerson (a distant relative of the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson) was born on May 13, 1856, on the sugar plantation of his American father in La Palma, Cuba, then a colony of Spain. Sports and the outdoors were early interests of the young boy. When he was eight, his family moved back to the United States for a brief time, before settling in his mother’s native land of England, after his father died. He studied medicine at King’s College in London and received the equivalent of an M. D. in 1879. Shortly thereafter, he took an advanced medical degree and then worked as a physician for a few years.
In 1882, Emerson began to photograph and exhibit his work. The next year, he joined the Photographic Society of Great Britain, later renamed the Royal Photographic Society, with which he became closely associated. In the 1880s, his work was included in exhibitions in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Philadelphia. In 1885, he cruised for the first time through the Norfolk Broads, a region that captivated him for many years. Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, his deluxe book of forty platinum prints, appeared the next year, to great praise.
Emerson’s subsequent publications, however, all were illustrated with images in photogravure, a high-quality photomechanical process. Between 1887 and 1895, Emerson issued two portfolios and five additional books, beginning with Idyls of the Norfolk Broads and ending with March Leaves. He functioned like an artistic anthropologist, making beautiful idyllic images accompanied by substantial and insightful text on the lifestyles of his subjects. In 1890, Emerson himself learned the photogravure process, setting up his own press and making the prints for his subsequent publications.
Emerson defined naturalistic photography in 1889, when he issued his unillustrated tract Naturalistic Photograph for Students of the Art. In it, he argued for photography as a fine art, declared nature the standard for all pictures, and explained his practice of "differential focusing." This involved focusing the image sharply in the center and softly on the edges, a method he believed most closely approximated normal human vision. Amazingly, only a year after the book was published, he abandoned his belief that photography was an art and issued the black-bordered pamphlet The Death of Naturalistic Photography. Nonetheless, a whole generation of advanced amateurs was inspired to begin making creative photographs by his methods.
In 1895, the Royal Photographic Society awarded Emerson its prestigious progress medal for artistic achievement, and five years later it gave him a retrospective of nearly 150 photographs. After this show, Emerson ceased exhibiting and allowing his work to be published, though he continued to photograph. Throughout most of Emerson’s career he issued medals to photographers whose work he admired, beginning with Alfred Stieglitz and ending with Brassaï.
Late in life, Emerson wrote a history of photography, the manuscript for which has never been found. He died on May 12, 1936, a day short of his eightieth birthday. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Further research

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W. Boughton
P.H. Emerson, B.A. M.B. (Cantab) Armiger of The Nook, Oulton Broad 
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Exhibitions on this website

ThumbnailPeter Henry Emerson - Marsh Leaves 
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Peter Henry Emerson
British, 1856-1936

The English photographer, P. H. Emerson was a major influence in late nineteenth-century photography. A champion of a "naturalistic" aesthetic Emerson fought to have photography recognized as an art form in its own right. He rebelled against the "high art" photography of the day that was typified by the work of H.P. Robinson and O.G. Rejlander. Emerson found this work to be sentimental and artificial. At a time when many photographers were struggling to imitate painting and painterly styles, Emerson devised his own standard for photography stressing natural settings and spontaneous poses. He also believed in focusing sharply only on the central object of a scene and allowing the rest to be slightly blurred. He believed this to be closer to the way the eye sees, rather than sharp on all planes as a camera lens can "see".
He bought his first camera in 1882 and spent the next several years studying and experimenting in photography. By 1885 he was exhibiting his work and winning prizes widely. In 1889 Emerson published Naturalistic Photography a handbook detailing his approach and the theories he believed supported it. Although he did not publish or exhibit his work after 1900, Emerson's influence on photography was profound. He is often called the father of art photography and supported and recognized talent in other photographers. Alfred Stieglitz was first recognized by Emerson, who awarded him first prize in a competition. He also produced a book on Julia Margaret Cameron who was widely regarded as a photographic crank by many of her contemporaries.
Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads a book containing 40 platinum prints was published in 1886. He subsequently published several more books that reproduced his photographs in high quality photogravure. Influenced by the arts and crafts movement, and in response to the industrial revolution, he frequently photographed farmers and fisherman at work practicing old trades and crafts that were rapidly becoming outdated. His landscapes recall a simpler time before the industrial revolution.
[Contributed by Lee Gallery]

Peter Henry Emerson was born in Cuba on 13 May 1856, where his family owned a sugar plantation. His father died in 1867 and in 1869 the family moved to England, where Emerson spent the rest of his life, taking British nationality. He studied medicine, qualifying as a doctor in 1885, but never practised. In 1881 he purchased his first camera and it is for his photographs and for his writing that he is now best remembered. All of his published photographic work, with minor exceptions, appeared between 1886 and 1895.
Emerson was married in June 1881. In August 1883 he took a holiday in the coastal town of Southwold in Suffolk, in the part of England that was to become the inspiration and location for most of his subsequent work. Two years later, in 1885, Emerson returned to Southwold and, together with his brother, hired a yacht for a cruise on the Norfolk Broads. On this cruise he met the painter Thomas Frederick Goodall (1857-1944). Emerson and Goodall became firm friends and artistic collaborators and for the following six years Emerson’s photographic activities were concentrated mainly in rural Norfolk.
In 1886 Emerson, with Goodall as co-author, produced Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, a large book of forty platinum prints, with complementary text. Two more books followed in 1887. These were illustrated with photogravures. The platinum prints of Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads were of variable quality and it was possibly this experience that contributed to Emerson’s choice of photogravure for all his subsequent publications, although the close relationship between the methods and materials of photogravure and the artistic medium of etching was probably a more influential factor.
He was, however, at least initially, entirely in the hands of commercial platemakers, whose methods did not always meet his exacting standards. It was not until 1893 that Emerson had acquired sufficient skill to make all his own, unretouched, plates.
In 1889 came the book that was described by one of Emerson’s contemporaries as having the effect of ‘a bombshell dropped into the midst of a tea-party’. Emerson’s first edition of Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art. Detailed instructions were given on every aspect of photographic practice. A second, slightly revised edition followed in 1890.
In Naturalistic Photography Emerson was aiming to align photographic practice with contemporary movements in British art with which he identified. This brought him into direct conflict with the photographic establishment, personified by Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901).
Naturalistic Photography, in which Emerson prescribes methods, materials and techniques to be used by the student who wishes to follow his lead, would appear to describe, by implication, Emerson’s own working practice. A study of his published work, however, reveals this to be only partially true.
Emerson’s theories of Naturalistic Focusing caused controversy and confusion. He advocated the use in photographs of a restricted depth of field as analogous to that of the eye, and advised that ‘... it is always necessary to throw the principal object slightly (often only just perceptibly) out of focus, to obtain a natural appearance ...’ This, of course, simply shifts the focal plane elsewhere. In many of Emerson’s published photographs, an area of sharp focus may be found that, given his antipathy to retouching, he was unable to disguise.
During the second half of 1890 Emerson had begun to have some doubts about the artistic status of photography. In May 1890 Hurter and Driffield had stated that once a plate had been exposed, the ratios of the image densities were fixed and could not be altered during development. This subjective intervention was fundamental to Emerson’s claims for the artistic status of photography. He spent three months during 1890 testing, in practice, Hurter and Driffield’s laboratory results and reluctantly concluded that they were right.
Emerson’s justification of the status of photography as an artistic medium relied on the ability of the photographer to select and frame a subject; to adjust the focus and the focal plane to emphasise some parts of the subject and supress others; and, most importantly, to adjust the tonal relationships on the negative to match those as visualised by the photographer. He wanted the freedom of the artist’s subjective transcription of tones, even if this was at variance with their relative luminance. Science, however, denied him this freedom.
He came to the conclusion that photography was not and could not be art and in consequence he published, at the end of 1890, a pamphlet entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography in which he gave his reasons for this renunciation, as he called it.
Emerson did not, however, give up photography and continued to publish his work. In 1893 he published On English Lagoons, and in 1895 Marsh Leaves. He made the photogravure plates himself for these, his last two illustrated books.
Emerson’s last attempt to influence his contemporaries was his publication, in 1899, of the third edition of Naturalistic Photography, from which all references to the artistic status of photography were excised.
It is clear from Emerson’s correspondence with Alfred Stieglitz that he continued to take photographs into the 1920s, but no evidence of this output seems to have survived.
P.H.Emerson died in 1936, one day short of his eightieth birthday.
© David Stone - Used with permission (July 2007)

Works by P. H. Emerson, in chronological order of publication
© David Stone - Used with permission.

1. Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1887) with T. F. Goodall London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Illustrated with 40 Platinotypes [There was a rare deluxe edition of Emerson's first book in 1886, oblong folio, leather-backed vellum gilt, with 40 plates and the accompanying text leaves. All of the 25 copies were sold, and the original negatives and printing plates were destroyed. Swanns - New York, May 22, 2007, Sale 2115 Lot 62]
The plates included are:
  • "On the River Bure" (frontispiece)
  • "Coming Home from the Marshes"
  • "Setting the Bow-Net"
  • "A Broadman's Cottage"
  • "A Sailing Match at Horning, 1885"
  • "The Village of Horning"
  • "An Eel-Catcher's Home"
  • "Taking up the Eel-Net"
  • "Water-Lilies"
  • "Gathering Water-Lillies"
  • "Snipe-Shooting"
  • "A Ruined Water-Mill"
  • "The Old Order and the New"
  • "A Norfolk Boat-Yard"
  • "The First Frost"
  • "The Haunt of the Pike"
  • "Quanting the Marsh Hay"
  • "Poling the Marsh Hay"
  • "Setting up the Bow-Net"
  • "Gunner Working up to Fowl"
  • "The Fowler's Return"
  • "Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff"
  • "Marshman Going to Cut Schoof-Stuff"
  • "The River Bure at Coltishall"
  • "Cantley: Wherries Waiting for the Turn of the Tide"
  • "A Reed-Cutter at Work"
  • "Towing the Reed"
  • "Ricking the Reed"
  • "During the Reed-Harvet"
  • "A Marsh Farm"
  • "Cattle on the Marshes"
  • "A Reed Boat-House"
  • "Cutting the Gladdon"
  • "The Gladdon-Cutter's Return"
  • "Quanting the Gladdon"
  • "A Rushy Shore"
  • " 'Twixt Land and Water"
  • "Evening"
  • "An Autumn Morning"
  • "The Fringe of the Marsh."

2. Pictures from Life in Field and Fen (1887) London: G. Bell & Sons A portfolio of 20 photogravures with preface
3. Idyls of the Norfolk Broads (1887) London: The Autotype Co. A portfolio of 12 photogravures with introductory essay
4. Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888) London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Illustrated with 32 photogravures and 15 small half-tones in Collotype
5. The Compleat Angler (1888) by Izaak Walton London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Plates 2-28 by P. H. Emerson, photogravure
6. Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889) London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Second edition 1890 Third edition 1899
7. Pictures of East Anglian Life (1890) A portfolio of 10 prints selected from the book of the same title
8. Wild Life on a Tidal Water (1890) London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington Illustrated with 30 photogravures
9. The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1890) London: The Author
10. Notes on Perspective Drawing and Vision (1891) Jointly with T. F. Goodall London: Warren, Hall & Lovitt
11. On English Lagoons (1893) London: David Nutt Illustrated with 15 photogravures
12. Marsh Leaves (1895) London: David Nutt Illustrated with 16 photogravures
The plates included are:
  • I A Winter's Sunrise
  • II The Lone Lagoon
  • III The Fetters of Winter
  • IV A Waterside Inn
  • V A Winter Pastoral
  • VI Marsh Weeds
  • VII Gnarled Thorn-Trees
  • VIII The Misty River
  • IX Bleak Winter
  • X The Waking River
  • XI The Bridge
  • XII The Snow Garden
  • XIII A Corner of the Farm-Yard
  • XIV Rime Crystals
  • XV The Lonely Fisher
  • XVI The Last Gate

13. English Idyls London: A. G. Berry First published 1889, second, de luxe edition of 1924 illustrated with one plate from Marsh Leaves
14. Letters to James Havard Thomas, 1888-1914 Transcribed by Fiona Pearson A bound volume at the Local Studies Department, Norwich Central Library, Norwich, Norfolk, England
15. Emerson, P. H. and Goodall, T. F. (1891) Notes on Perspective Drawing and Vision London: Warren, Hall & Lovitt
Between September 1889 and March 1890 Emerson's 'Our English Letter' appeared in The American Amateur Photographer
Other sources:
• Callender, R.M. (2004) "'Dear Mr. Driffield ... ' : Letters of Peter Henry Emerson and Hurter & Driffield" in History of Photography, Winter 2004 London. Philadelphia, Taylor & Francis
• Gernsheim, Helmut (1962), Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960 London: Faber and Faber
• Gross, Jozef The Broadland Paysanniste in British Journal of Photography 12 December 1986 pp.1420-1423
• Handy, Ellen (ed.) (1994) Pictorial Effect and Naturalistic Vision: The Photographs and Theories of H. P. Robinson and P. H. Emerson Exhibition catalogue, with essays by Brian Lukacher and Shelley Rice Norfolk, VA.: The Chrysler Museum
• Harker, Margaret F. (1979) The Linked Ring London: Heinemann
• Jeffrey, Ian (1984) 'Peter Henry Emerson: Art and Solitude' in The Golden Age of British Photography 1839-1900 Aperture (Exhibition Catalogue)
• McWilliam, Neil and Sekules, Veronica (eds.) (1986) Life and Landscape: P. H. Emerson, Art and Photography in East Anglia 1885-1900 Norwich: Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts
• Merien, Mary Warner. 'The Lure of Modernity', Chapter 5 in Photography and its Critics, A Cultural History 1839-1900 CUP. Sycamore University
• Merien, Mary Warner. (1997) 'Peter Henry Emerson, The Taxonomy of a Crow's Nest' in History of Photography, Summer 1997 London. Philadelphia, Taylor & Francis
• Newhall, Nancy (1975) P. H. Emerson; The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art New York: Aperture
• Stone, D.J. (2000) ‘Peter Henry Emerson and the Pictorial Representation of Perception’ in The Photohistorian (The journal of the Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society), September 2000
• Taylor, John (1992) 'Aristocrats of Anthropology: A Study of P.H.Emerson and Other Tourists on the Norfolk Broads' in IMAGE Volume 35 Nos. 1-2 Rochester: GEH
• Taylor, John (1994) 'Behind Every Landscape Is a Woman: P.H.Emerson's Anxieties of Class and Gender' in A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist Imagination Manchester University Press
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) (1989) British Photography in the Nineteenth Century Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 

Internet biographies

Terms and Conditions

Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography. Go to website

Internet resources

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Peter Henry Emerson ... 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.80 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.169 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Peter Henry Emerson.] 
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.455-456 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.130-131 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.246 
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.112-113 
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Peter Henry Emerson are included in this classic history.] 
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.40 [Analyzes a single photograph by Peter Henry Emerson.] 


Photographic collections are a useful means of examining large numbers of photographs by a single photographer on-line. 

In the 1990 survey of 535 American photographic collections Peter Henry Emerson was represented in 53 of the collections. Source: Andrew H. Eskind & Greg Drake (eds.) 1990 Index to American Photographic Collections [Second Enlarged Edition] (Boston, Massachusetts: G.K. Hall & Co.) 


The wit and wisdom.

"I have yet to learn that any one statement of photography of Mr. H.P. Robinson has ever had the slightest effect on me except as a warning of what not to do...."
"In reality professional photographers are those who have studied one branch of photography thoroughly, and are masters of all its resources and no others. It is not a question of £.s.d., this "professional" and "amateur" question, but a question of knowledge and capacity. An amateur is a dabbler without aim, without knowledge and without capacity, no matter how many of his productions he may sell."
"the gum process destroys tone, texture, and with it values and atmosphere; it makes the result coarse and false, and to look like the photograph of a painting ... it is hand work, and not photography."
"The limitations of photography are so great that, though the results may and sometimes do give a certain aesthetic pleasure, the medium must always rank the lowest of all arts..., for the individuality of the artist is cramped... In short, I throw my lot in with those who say that photography is a very limited art. I regret deeply that I have to come to this conclusion."
"[Retouching] the process by which a good, bad, or indifferent photograph is converted into a bad drawing or painting"
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