A distant relative of author Ralph Waldo Emerson, Peter Henry Emerson was born in Cuba to American parents on May 3, 1856. His father, Henry Ezekiel Emerson owned a Cuban sugar plantation, but his health problems forced the family to relocate to Wilmington, Delaware in 1865. Three years' later, the senior Emerson died, and the following year, the family moved again to England, where Peter would live for the rest of his life. An accomplished medical student, he attended universities in London and Cambridge.
He married Edith Amy Ainsworth in June 1881, and instead of pursuing a career in medicine, Mr. Emerson decided instead to pursue his interest in photography full time, having the financial means to do so. He developed a theory on the art of photography that was based on German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz's text Physiological Optics. Mr. Emerson contended that true art was derived from the detail and selectiveness of the human eye. He published several treatises based upon this hypothesis from 1886 and 1895, including his masterwork, Naturalistic Photography, which was published in 1889. It became readily apparent that Mr. Emerson’s philosophy as presented within this text was in sharp opposition to the sentimental artistic photographs championed by English pictorialist photographer Henry Peach Robinson. It was Mr. Robinson's 1869 text Pictorial Effect in Photography that had established the aesthetic standard by which all photographs of the period were judged. A very public debate ensued between these esteemed photographers, with Mr. Emerson arguing - much to Mr. Robinson's annoyance and to considerable controversy - that true photographic art could be generated by putting camera lenses slightly out of focus so that the eye's central field of vision was disrupted.
As a result, a new generation of late nineteenth-century photographers began taking out-of-focus photographs in keeping with Mr. Emerson's naturalistic focusing theories. Meanwhile, Mr. Emerson implored upon his friend, optician Thomas Rudolphus Dallmeyer, to design a camera lens that resembled the human eye. He did so, but Mr. Emerson was dissatisfied with the results. With the passage of time, prominent figures like George Davison who had initially supported Mr. Emerson's views began adopting Impressionistic photographic techniques.
The subsequent furor prompted Mr. Emerson to reassess his radical philosophy. In 1890, he presented a pamphlet entitled The Death of Naturalistic Photography. Although he continued writing about photography, publishing texts that included On English Lagoons (1893) and Marsh Leaves (1895), he was clearly disillusioned with the notion that photography was a legitimate form of artistic expression. During the 1920s, he began corresponding with American photographer Alfred Steiglitz, which has led some historians to conclude he was interested in Steiglitz's Photo-Secessionist movement. Unfortunately, however, Mr. Emerson's photographs from this period that would have substantiated this claim have been lost.
Peter Henry Emerson died in England one day before his eightieth birthday, on May 2, 1936. Beyond his published texts, several of his unpublished photographs were donated to the George Eastman House.
1899 The Photogram (Dawbarn & Ward, London) p. 354-355
2005 Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 44.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 483-486.
1988 Photography in Print (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press), p. 190.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera