Peter Henry Emerson (b. Cuba 1856 – d. UK 1936) was one of the most pioneering photographers – and opinionated writers – of the late 19th century. His interests were eclectic, and included medicine, sports, genealogy, anthropology, and ornithology. Between 1881 and 1895 he devoted his life to photography and writing about rural life in East Anglia, particularly the Norfolk Broads.
Defined by one critic as “The Courbet of England”, Emerson argued for naturalism in photography and developed influential photographic techniques, such as ‘selective focus’. Inspired by early theories of perception, he wanted to preserve the way the human eye sees nature – not as sharply as a photographic lens. His fervent and public opposition to other, more ‘artificial’, Victorian photographers, such as Henry Peach Robinson, has become a classic episode in the history of photography. Unexpectedly, in 1890 Emerson recanted his view that photography was an art, although he continued to publish incredible pictorial books, accompanying his images with his writing until 1895.
With works drawn from the V&A and the Castle’s own collections, and presented in our new temporary exhibition gallery, this exhibition explores the artist’s modes of presenting his photographs to the public. Published as exquisite portfolios of photogravures, or as beautiful bound pictorial books, or as stand-alone large scale prints, the objects on display will reveal Emerson’s fascinating editorial vision and intriguing writings. Furthermore, the inclusion of archival documents from the V&A will shed light on the ways in which Emerson carefully controlled the circulation of his work.