Naturalistic Photography:
The Theory and Practice of
Peter Henry Emerson

Naturalistic Photography - Peter Henry Emerson
Naturalistic Photography: The Theory and Practice of Peter Henry Emerson , 1999
A dissertation submitted to Sotheby’s Institute in conformity with the requirements for the Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine and Decorative Art.


During the last quarter of the 19th century, the development of photography changed dramatically since it was first used in the 1840’s. The production, development and printing of film plates plus simpler cameras and consumer friendly service resulted in more people starting to take up photography as a leisure activity and the introduction of the ‘Kodak No1’camera in 1888 also helped photography to become more accessible. G.B. Shaw, for example, explains why he started to take up photography in 1898. “I always wanted to draw and paint…But I could not draw well enough…So when dry plates and push buttons [cameras] came on the market I bought a box camera and began pushing the button.” Leon Warnerke commented about this contemporary development, “The modern photographer does not like any complicated manipulations. He wants only to obtain a result [as far as] possible with the least possible trouble…” Both these quotes help to explain people’s attitudes towards the more and more popular hobby of photographing, an attitude which continued throughout the 20th century. However, Peter Henry Emerson stood in contrast with this ideology and advocated a photography that related to the arts and crafts, which he explained in his instructions of ‘Naturalistic Photography for the Students of the Art’, first published in 1889.

Emerson’s early life and career was by no means straightforward, it had a couple of twists and turns. Born on the 13th of May in 1856 in Cuba (still a Spanish colony at this time) Emerson was the oldest child of three. His father was an American who was in charge of several coffee and sugar plantations. After the health of his father declined (he died in 1867) Emerson’s family was forced to return to Wilmington in Delaware. And because of the Cuban war of independence in 1868 he could not return to Cuba for his education and so was sent to England to a public school in Surrey in 1869. Later Emerson started to study Natural Sciences at Clare College in Cambridge and took a degree in medicine in 1885. Emerson bought his first camera in 1882 and after having received photographic instruction from Ernest Griffith, Emerson soon abandoned his medical career. After a holiday in Southwold on the Suffolk coast in 1883, he met Arthur George Bell, a landscape painter, who introduced him to the landscape of the region and its artistic quality. Emerson was also introduced to the naturalistic painter Thomas Frederick Goodall who had the same passion for the this countryside as him, which lead to both men co-operating together to produce Emerson’s first illustrated book Life and Landscape of the Norfolk Broads published in 1886. From this point a new career started to establish itself, which then gave Emerson contacts with other photographers, for example both Alfred Stieglitz and Julia Margaret Cameron. Emerson brought out about 30 different book titles, some of them purely literary works, others with photographic illustrations by him intended for the art connoisseur, and others were critical and instructive works for photographers.

As a photographer Emerson lived mainly from his illustrated publications and made very rarely single editions of his prints. In his publications he predominantly used topics of rural life and peasants in the landscape of the Norfolk Broads, East Anglian and other coasts and lagoons in England. The pictorial subjects of these illustrations are harbour or river scenes, fishermen activities, or peasants working in the field with animals, or hunting scenes (fig.1 & 2 & 3). The text parts in these books are poetic descriptions of the landscape and people and are records of life in this rural area. In contrast to this, is his book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, which contains argumentation towards his way of making photos and was published in three editions (1889, 1890 and 1899). Although all three texts are mainly identical, the 3rd edition was partly enlarged and rewritten due to new discoveries in photography, which influenced his arguments. The upshot of these scientific discoveries was that Emerson had to renounce the whole theory and had privately published his booklet The Death of Naturalistic Photography as early as 1890. However, Emerson also continued to take photographs of the Norfolk Broads and East Anglia, which indicates that the illustrated books were still in demand despite the debate about his controversial theory.

A debate grew up around Emerson’s publication, his principle critic being Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), who wrote: “While giving Dr. Emerson all credit for sincerity, we cannot help feeling that his system is pernicious, and tending to lead the amateur into slovenly ways, and into a habit of excusing bad photography by calling it good art.” Robinson was an influential photographer since the 1860’s. He used in his pictures a compositional additive process, which was quite similar to the Pre-Raphaelite artists Holman Hunt and Millais. This meant that Robinson assembled different recorded fragments, which were on different negatives, into a new composition (fig.4). Photographers such as him, who had followed in the tradition of Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813-75) and used such a composite photography (fig.5), believed that photography should progress away from the ‘purist’ recording medium where no improvements were allowed. Robinson wrote, “Nature, having no inner consciousness, knows nothing about art. Nature takes life as it comes while true art takes the best of nature and improves upon it…” Robinson wanted to ‘correct the unpicturesque’ using any kind of trickery to improve the artistic quality of the picture. He would even mix real and artificial elements in a picture, to produce ‘High Art Photography’. Although Emerson stood in contrast to this kind of photography, because he saw them not to be ‘true to nature’ he seemed to agree that the photographer should not copy the facts of nature, but to interpret them in an artistic way. “The realist makes no analysis, he is satisfied with the motes and leaves out the sunbeam. He will, in so far as he is able, paint all the veins of the leaves as they really are, and not as they took as a whole…[but in the case of Emerson] …the Naturalist would endeavour to express the impression of [nature] as it appears to him…The Naturalist’s work we should call true to nature [but] realism belongs to the province of science.” This definition and distinction of realism and naturalism was the cornerstone for Emerson’s theory of ‘Naturalistic Photography’ where he not only gives an argumentation and practical advice in the use of lenses, focusing, exposure, development and printing methods to explain how to create his idea of artistic photographs. He also educates the student about art history (from the ancient Greek to contemporary art) with the focus on ‘Naturalism’, to back up his theory of what is good art and to train the eye of the photographer. Emerson claims that “Much time and expense would have been saved had the pioneers of photography had good art education…for without art training, the practice of photography came to be looked upon purely as a science, and the ideal work of the photographer was to produce an unnaturalistic…picture.”

The aim of this dissertation is to find out the relation ship of Emerson theory and practice by investigating the origin of Emerson’s theory and to compare this with Emerson’s photographic practice, especially with the use of four photographic elements, to achieve the final result of Naturalistic Photography.


To educate the photographic newcomer was an important element in Emerson’s book Naturalistic Photography, which intended to guide them into the ‘right’ style. “The uneducated of their own generation, thoroughly tired of a naturalism whose [the public] aim have never understood, hail with delight any novelty or new departure, and they praise puerility and falseness of colour [and] false drawing as idealizing…” This comment by Emerson about the popular public taste and the photographers who followed it due to commercial gains, reflects the central thought of Emerson’s theory that only naturalistic art can be good art because it is following the true standards of nature. To support this theory, Emerson looked into the history of art and contrasted the Medieval and the Renaissance periods to illustrate that when the artist moved away from studying nature then art itself declined and was inferior as he argued the Medieval period was. This point shows again that Emerson was deeply against contemporary ideologies represented by Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Gothic revival. Therefore Emerson saw that in art history there are two main tendencies, one that moves away, and one, which moves towards naturalism. He said that “Naturalistic art has been found and lost, and found and lost time after time, and because the Dutch, French, English and American artist of to-day one is finding it again that we feel hope for the art of the future.” By stating this Emerson was hoping that photography would become the new way of expressing naturalism because of the more reliable depiction of nature than an artist ever could do. Therefore Emerson thought that Naturalistic Photography was the only way forward to build an opposition to the photography of Robinson and his followers. However, to understand Emerson’s idea of ‘truth to nature’ with the use of photography, we have to examine from where did he have this idea that art should look at nature, how did he back up this idea with scientific evidence, and also from where did his visual influences come from for his desired photographic result?

Emerson was convinced that photography could develop into an independent art form with the concept of Naturalism inspired by the art of the ‘Norwich School’ and, especially, from John Constable (1776-1837). This romantic landscape approach, to paint as one sees it, of agricultural based villages in Norfolk and East Anglia derived from the 18th Century Germanic ‘Nature-Philosophy’. For example Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) argues in the introduction of Propyläen that “The highest demand that is made on an artist is…that he be true to Nature…and produce something that resembles her phenomena.” That Emerson had the ideas of ‘Nature-Philosophy’ in mind becomes more evident when he used Sir Thomas Lawrence’s statement in Naturalistic Photography: “All good art has its scientific basis…. Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then [should] not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but experiments?”  Being interested in Constable, Emerson must have been influenced, because Constable had used the exact same quotation of Sir Thomas Lawrence in his lecture, at the Royal Institution, on the16 of June in1836. However, another connection to painting is illustrated in the title of Francis Bate book of 1887 The Naturalistic Style of Painting. “Our pictures should be an accurate reflection of the appearance of Nature, not copies of a part of it, but a reflection of the appearance of the whole of it…There is one school where we may all be free students. There is one inexhaustible bank of knowledge, upon which we may all draw forever, as largely as we like…There is one requirement of the scholars, which it is necessary for them to attend to absolute Truthfulness. The name of the school is Nature.” In this book Bate used quite theoretical ideas and language for paintings similar to those of Emerson introduced for photography two years later in the first edition of ‘Naturalistic Photography’. All these similarities with theories in painting shows that Emerson was looking to contemporary movements in painting and adapting them for photographic purposes rather than to develop a new photographic artistic convention which would break with the conventional visual connection that existed with painting since its invention in 1839.

The idea that art is drawing on scientific evidence is for Emerson probably the most important aspect in his theory to produce a ‘true’ photographic impression of nature and not an illustration. In 1853 the Vice-President of the Photographic Society of London, Sir William J Newton R.A., in the article ‘Upon photography in an artistic view and in its relation to the Art’ stated that photography does not have to be a faithful representation of nature but should be an artistic creative expression of it: “I do not conceive it to be necessary or desirable for an artist to represent or aim at the attainment of every minute detail…on the contrary, I have found in many instances that the object is better obtained by the whole subject being a little out of focus” This is almost the same point as Emerson was advising but he adds the optical theories of Hermann von Helmhotz to back up the reasons why one should be ‘a little out of focus’ when taking a picture. Helmholz’s explains that the human vision has optical faults and argues that the retina of the human eye is capable only of seeing correctly with a small part “…all other parts of the retinal image beyond that [field] which falls on the central spot are imperfectly seen…so that the image which we receive by the eye is likely a picture minutely and elaborately finished in the centre, but only roughly sketched at the borders…. To look at anything means to place the eye in such a position that the image of the object falls an a small region of perfectly clear vision.” These arguments of Helmholtz gives Emerson evidence to argue that “…the eye does not see things as sharp as the photographic lens, for the eye has the faults due to dispersion, spherical aberration, astigmatism, blind spot and beyond twenty feet it does not adjust perfectly for the different planes. All this imperfection makes the eye’s vision more imperfect that that of the optician’s lens, even when objects in one plane only are sharply focused.”  Therefore Emerson advised to set the lens only slightly out of focus to recreate the visual impression the human eye has. In addition Emerson gave the practical example, that the eye does not register the world as the photographic camera by referring to Muybridge’s Motion of a Horse (fig.6) of 1877. Muybridge suggested from that, that cameras should be used in important races rather than judge with the naked eye who has won. The pictures showed that a galloping horse has for a short time all of its feet off the ground and made it evident for Emerson that earlier depictions of horse movements with all legs stretched were the result of a misinterpretation by the human eye through the fast movements.

Although Emerson believed that photography was the ideal tool to study nature for the sake of art and advised the student to use the camera as the “ naturalists and astronomers make [use] of the microscope and telescope, for all these instruments equally contribute to make and represent Nature.”  The question is how and from where did Emerson get his visual inspiration to achieve the desired result in his photography to suit the theory, because a theory alone does not indicate any visual elements, which could be used for a composition of a picture. As I have already explained, Constable and Emerson not only share the same theories but also the interest in rural landscape of Suffolk and Norfolk. This interest in rural subjects was strongly propagated for example by the 1892 publications by P.G. Hamerton who wrote about the picturesque rural scenery and encouraged the artists to go there to record the landscape because he was afraid that the increase of tourism could have a negative effect in the rural villages and cause social and economical changes. Therefore he warned that one should go there “…before the change had begun to operate, the peasant, both in the fields and the cottage, was always eminently paintable; and if we inquire how and why it was more paintable than the image of another class, such as the aristocracy in the country or the bourgeoisie in the towns, we find that the forms and colours of things were more harmonious. They all sprang from minds of the same order, of the same taste and, education, there was a common consciousness that produces in all things belonged to the landscape….” It seems no surprise that Emerson had followed this call, as many other artists had done, in search for a new photographic language. Andrew Hemingway explains a possible reason for this interest in rural communities, which Emerson developed, in his book Landscape imagery and urban culture in early nineteenth-century Britain. “Nature in early nineteenth century landscape painting functioned as the setting for representation of an ideal social order, the two being mutually expressive of each other. In the main, this social order was illustrated through a rural working population, and few signs of the superstructure of land society which their labours supported were included.” Emerson did not only follow these 19th Century ideologies, which were rooted with a romantic theory (as we have explained earlier), but he also looked to the French Naturalistic School of painting as for example to Jean François Millet (fig.7 & 8). Emerson thought a lot about Millet’s painting:  “…one of his scenes of peasant life, has more originality than that of all those [ideal works of art] put together.” This is not only a connection with the Naturalistic school of painting described by Bate, but it is also a stylistic root for Emerson’s use of peasants as a pictorial subject in his pictures (fig.9). However, the influence of the French naturalists was a general phenomenon in later Victorian in England, which can be seen in the foundation of new artistic societies such as the New English Art Club in 1886. This artistic society was against the conservative exhibition ideology of the Royal Academy, and promoted artists like Clausen, La Thangue and Goodall, which can be perceived as an analogy to Emerson’s rebellion against Robinson’s way of making photographs. Emerson was a good friend of Goodall, which is a very important link to the artistic movement of naturalism and indicates that Emerson took up these ideas and partly translated their visual language for his concept of photography.

In the whole, Emerson used many different sources for this theory, sources which were widely known in the late 19th Century and it is apparent that he was using them, as many other people have done, to support his way of photography. The same is true with his use of scientific quotations by Hermann von Helmholtz who not only influenced Emerson but also the Neo-Impressionist and Symbolist painters. Also the connection to naturalistic painters such as Goodall and the artists of the New English Art Club seemed to be parallel with Emerson’s photographic venture to break away from established conventions and to develop an artistic formula. Emerson was more a photographer than a true theoretician, which seems to be evident by his eclectic way and drawing from different sources of theories as well as by his inspiration of visual language from naturalism. In the theory part of Emerson’s Naturalistic Photography there are no new theoretical grounds.  As we have seen he took ideas from Goethe, Constable, Lawrence, Bate and event Sir. William J. Newton to construct a theoretical argument on how to create a ‘truthful’ impression of nature by studying her. The extensive use Helmholtz’s theoretical writing illustrates that Emerson was not concerned to be original nor was he purely interested in scientific studies. However, Emerson knew that he could in this way find a connection to his desired visual result with the use of photography and to show an alternative way of making photographic images. But this alternative way derives from the French and English naturalistic school of paintings, which Emerson admits to admiring, and it was probably exactly this element, which Emerson thought to combine with photography to be true to nature and not to copy her. Therefore it can be said that the theory of Naturalistic Photography is heavily based on other people’s ideas and that it was probably a justification of Emerson’s belief of what is good art photography which opposed the detailistic realism and the over manipulation of the image to create photography which looked like paintings. However, with this theory alone we do not completely understand how Emerson made the translation of it into different photographic processes, such as exposure, development and printing process, to creating the final photographic image for his publications.


We should remember that Emerson wrote not only a theory but also gave practical advice in how to make pictures. In this sense it is important for this study to examine how exactly Emerson produced naturalistic looking pictures. Therefore, after having explained the origin of Emerson’s theory (i.e. art photography that is true to nature) I am going to look into the four main photographic processes (i.e. focusing, exposure, development and printing) to explain how they were used to influence the visual appearances according to Emerson’s theory. In this way I hope to assess later the relationship between the theory and the pictures. The question I try to answer is: How much do the pictures of Emerson actually reflect his theory? I am embarking on this inquiry with how Emerson used the focusing technique to draw the attention of the viewer to the main object in his picture.


Before I concentrate on the specific method of focusing of a camera lens, I have to explain beforehand the type of lens preferred by Emerson. This was an important factor, which influenced the final appearance of the picture by quite a lot. By the time Emerson started to be a professional photographer, the quality of the photographic lens had been continually improved since the first camera came on the market. But, the “landscape lens”, as Emerson used, did not progress to a higher standard until the 1860’s, for example with a lens which had a larger aperture opening as well as a flatter picture field. However, new types of optical glasses became available with anastigmatic lenses and an aperture opening of around f/8, which were produced for example by the company of Carl Zeiss in the 1880’s. This new type of lens was optically so perfect that Emerson did not advise them to be used because he believed if the lens saw better than the human eye that would mean to break with the naturalistic ideology. But, Emerson found a lens, which had all the advantages of the new types and would still depict a picture in a naturalistic way. This was the ‚Dallmeyer’s new long focus rectilinear landscape lens‘ and Emerson said about it that „…there is no appreciable marginal distortion and with open aperture the outlines of the images are softly and roundly rendered, and in addition the relevant values seems to us to be more truly rendered by it.“ This shows that the ongoing perfection of photographic lenses stood in contrast to Emerson’s idea of naturalistic depiction and therefore he suggested the lens by Dallmeyer, which he thought was ideal for this kind of photography. Emerson not only suggests that the photographic lens should not show things sharper than the human eye could see, but he also suggests that the main object in the picture should not be completely sharp. However, this did not mean that he would accept any kind of blurry pictures because he thought that the picture would lose its compositional structure, rather he meant to create graduations of sharpness, which fades more and more out from the fairly sharp main object towards the foreground or background. As Emerson explained,“…the foreground is not always to be rendered sharply. If our principal object is in the middle distance…our foreground…must be kept down, and purposely made unimportant; which is done chiefly by focusing…“ With the use of these elements, the special landscape lens and the focusing method, a fuzzy softness is created in the picture which can be illustrated with the picture of  ‚Water-lilies‘ (fig.10). Although in this picture there is not a main object, the focus point (on the left side from the middle) can be found by following the diagonal running water/reed line. It is evident the left side from this focus point is closer to us and the right side further away, which is the reason why an increasing fuzziness emerges. Similarly in the picture ‚A Frosty Morning‘ (fig.11), the focus point is on the walking men and horse with wagon. All the surrounding elements, the cows and the grass, are visible out of focus, which guides our attention to the main object. This fuzziness and mistiness in the pictures is an artistic element for Emerson, who expressed that „…Nothing in Nature has hard outline but every thing is seen against something else, and its outline fades gently into something else, often so subtly that you cannot quite distinguish where one ends and the other begins…. In this mingled decision and indication, this lost and found, lays all the charm and mystery of nature. This is what the artist seeks, and what the photographer, as a rule strenuously avoids.“ With this comment Emerson explains that he produces works of art, as paintings are for example, rather than photographic records. This desire to use photography as an independent art form is the essence of Emerson’s theory, which means that Emerson manipulates photography in such a way to create a naturalistic appearing picture. In this way the use of lens and focusing is used as an artistic element to express his desired result of ‚Naturalistic Photography‘. The next step would be to consider how to use the exposure of light on a film plate in the production of a photograph.


Emerson expected his readers to know basic physical conditions to evaluate the different factors, which one needed to observe to produce a successful picture. However, as Emerson explains the light varies in its intensity during a year, as well as that different meteorological conditions could result in different atmospheres of light. Emerson explained, „When he [the student] considers that there are several factors to be considered [with] the length of exposure, such as the lens used…the hour of day, the season of the year, the constantly varying condition of light, the subject and the plate…“. Therefore exposure meant for Emerson to expose a light sensitive material, normally on a film plate, to light within a certain amount of time, which depended on the intensity of the light source. Because of the many changing factors that influence the picture during the exposure, Emerson had to think how to manipulate the exposure to create the similar tones in the picture as he saw them, which was mainly by changing the exposure time. However, Emerson also thought that only a fast exposure time could be true to nature, which is a connection to Muybridge’s photographic experiment of the galloping horse (fig.6). Therefore he said: „He who exposes slowly misses the very essence of nature, and it is this very power of exposing so quickly that gives us a great advantage over all other arts…[and] … it is ours in the twinkling of an eye, and thus in a really first-rate photograph there will always be a freshness and naturalism never attainable in any other art.“  This means that Emerson hoped to use the shortest possible exposure time and therefore he automatically reduces the amount of light, which could reach the film plate. (We should remember that there are only two ways to regulate how much light will go on a film: one is the time allowed to pass the light though the lens and the other is the aperture opening.) In addition, due to Emerson’s artistic attitude, he did not believe that one should use technical tools to measure the intensity of the light to evaluate what kind of exposure would be best i.e. the combination of time and aperture opening. This seems to be odd especially because Emerson claims to be true to nature because it would have been easier to evaluate the light intensity by using a light meter for example. However, Emerson does not mean to be factually true to nature but to create an impression of nature, as well as he thought that one has to learn it by trial and error to get the right kind of exposure. „It is in exposure that intuition acts as it does in all intellectual matters, and he who can seize on the right exposure at once by instinct is the photographer born, and unless, after some practice, the student can do this, there is little hope that his work will ever rise above mediocrity.“ Looking at the picture ‚In the Haysle‘ (fig.12) we find out that the exposure rules set up by Emerson are not always reflected in the pictures. For example the claim to use fast exposure time to capture the ‚essence‘ of nature is most of the time not present. Fast exposure would mean to freeze all movements in time and therefore all details would be seen clear and sharp. However, this stands in contradiction with Emerson’s focusing practice, as we remember he said that ‚…Nothing in Nature has hard outline…‘, which we especially see in the unfocused details of the branches and leafs in the tree (fig.13). This means that Emerson was using a long exposure time and open aperture, which results in the bleaching out of the sky and also in the loss of details in the high lights and the shadows (fig.14). A possible reason for this could be that Emerson advised the use of dry plates, gelatin-bromide negatives, rather than wet plates because the “Gelatin dry plates were much more sensitive to light that those made by the earlier processes…“ but another important reason for Emerson was that “…wet plates do not give so true an impression of nature…nor are the results so artistic.“ This strong contrast, although not preferred by Emerson, was not only created by the kind of exposure but also by the kind of developing process.


To develop a film plate was in the 19th century a relatively difficult process and Emerson insisted that the student had to know the basic chemical processes as he insisted that they should know about the physical light conditions. However, this did not mean that one had to make one’s own film plates because many companies already existed at this period that already produced them commercially such as the Gelatine dry plates for example, which I have mentioned above. It is important to understand that Emerson used the development in a creative way, which started even before a single picture would be taken. Emerson believed that photography is an art form and this is because he combined it with the art of drawing and made sketches of the object for the study the tones before the film would be exposed. He said that: “…the student should think of all the possible harmonies and discords that can be found indoors and out of door, and he should, before taking a plate, make a mental translation of the subject into black and white, and put on paper roughly, with a piece of charcoal, what he expects to get, by drawing rough masses in tone of the subject.“ This sketch could then be used during development process and be compared with the photograph as a guideline for the final result. It was therefore essential for Emerson to develop the film plate on the spot after he had taken the picture in a kind of tent. The reason for this on the spot development was if one had made a mistake, it would be possible to take another picture under the same conditions relatively fast. But another reason was because he thought that the impression of the situation would be still fresh in one’s mind so that necessary corrections still could be done during the development. This can be illustrated with the following instructions. „If the high-lights are getting too dense, before the detail in the shadows is well out, take the plate out of the developer and let the details develop up with the amount of solution contained in the film, and then replace it in the developer for density, if necessary.“ However, this seems to stand in contradiction with Emerson’s intention to do a picture ‘as the eye sees it’. But it means that Emerson liked to retain an artistic control over the whole developing process. If we look at the picture ‘Coming Home from the Marshes’ (fig.15) we realise that the picture has an even and neutral grey tone and no high contrast exists, which is partly due to Emerson’s mentioned development method. As with the focusing and exposure process, Emerson wanted to create such grey tones to reinforce soft quality and naturalness. However, this could only be achieved with a cloudy weather condition, which creates a soft and diffuse light. But, in contrast to this is ‘Gathering Water lilies’ (fig.16), which shows the effect of direct sun light. Such direct light creates a hard contrast, which is visible in the high lights, the reflection of the water, and the shadow made from the boat. However, looking at the detail of the boat (fig.17), we discover that even in this example the shadows are not really black but show a neutral grey tone. These grey tones seem to have a kind of texture that enhances the soft quality, which was created on purpose by Emerson with a special printing process. This printing process was called Platinotype and Emerson preferred this process because he thought it was more ‚true in tonality‘ and more permanent than any other printing method. He said about it that it is a process that is “as beautiful for soft grey day effects as for brilliant sunshiny effects…“ This of cause explains why most of the pictures have this kind of grey tone and textured quality as in ‘A Fisherman at Home’ (fig.18). However, this printing process could do more than this in the final stage where a photograph became a work of art on a piece of paper.


For Emerson the printing process was a possibility to create the finishing touch in a photograph, which meant that the appearances of a picture could still be strongly effect. For example, the specific affected created by certain textured papers was one element that Emerson was using in this process. He thought that  “delicate landscapes and small portraits should be printed on the smooth papers, while for strong effects, large figure subjects, and large portrait fall of the character, the rough papers are more suitable.“ It seems that Emerson was here not very much concerned about the manipulation he wanted to avoid, and he probably thought that it would not matter as long as it serves for the purpose ‚true to nature‘. However, Emerson used also a yet more will-full manipulation in the printing process. This was especially possible with a so-called ‘cold developing process’ where “the print can be developed with a cold solution…the development can be controlled, for the developer can be applied with a brush, so that parts can be intensified or kept back at will.“ Another example for this kind of ‘enhanced naturalism’ is that Emerson used to tint photographs of certain landscape or figure subjects with sepia colour to create a variation from the monotonous grey tint of platinotype prints. This seems to be quite surprising because Emerson made such an effort to record the natural tones of a landscape correctly, as we have seen above, because by adding colour on photographic paper the actual density would increase and therefore not be any more as it was originally recorded. In one particular point Emerson even allowed manipulations within a picture, which can illustrate this comment better. „Printing in clouds is admissible because if well done, a truer impression of the scene is rendered. But the ordinary way of taking cloud negatives is much to be condemned.“ Emerson had no particular concern in printing clouds in a picture, which was quite similar to the method of Robinson’s composite pictures. But instead of being too liberal, in an artistic sense, Emerson wanted still to remain ‚true to nature‘ and therefore he developed a set of rules of how to do such an effect. First of all, he said that when taking a picture of clouds, which would be added later in the picture, “the point of sight shall be the same as that chosen for the landscape.“ Secondly, it should be „focused and developed [in such a way] that their tonality shall remain true…“ as well as “the cloud form shall be harmonious in the landscape.“ And finally, one should  “take it [picture of the clouds] at the same time as in the landscape and from the same point of view…“ This kind of printing in clouds is visible in ‘A Sailing Match’  (fig.19). Here we see that the sails of the sailing boats have a white silhouette of a few millimetres and only then one sees the clouds in the background. Also the picture ‘A Stiff Pull’ (fig.20) is an example of printed in clouds. Although here there is no white line surrounding the object, one realises that clouds above the horizon cannot really belong to the same picture because they appear to be like a wall. Emerson did this effect by painting latex rubber over the main object part in the negative, so that it does not let any light though during the printing process. In this way Emerson could print both negatives at the same time, by putting both on each other, and created a picture with clouds in the background. In addition to this, Emerson had a clear idea of when a photograph could not be ‘true to nature’, which was for example when a picture would be altered in its appearance with a media other than photography. For example a very common thing was to use retouching in the Victorian period, which is to paint with a brush and colour on a negative or photograph to improve its appearance. However, Emerson did not agree with the use of retouching because he felt that no artistic medium should be mixed with another one. He commented on its use by arguing that „…the matchless beauty of a pure and artistic photograph does not satisfy their [the public’s] vulgar mind, and yet such is the only kind of photograph at which an artist will look.“

After having looked at all four photographic stages and understood how Emerson put his theory of Naturalistic Photography into practice, we draw together this chapter by focusing on the visual qualities of his photographic practice as well as how the picture reflect his theory. In this way Emerson’s stated focusing theory is clearly evident in his pictures. First of all, his specific use of a lens that creates a soft rendered picture, and secondly, that he kept the main object just a bit out of focus, with a gradual decreasing sharpness towards the surroundings, are the main visual elements to create a feeling of the mystery of nature with a haziness in the picture. However, in the case of the exposure process it looks quite different when he claimed to use a fast exposure time when taking a picture. But, as we found out, in most of the pictures the details got blurry because they moved during the exposure. This means that Emerson could not always use a fast exposure probably because of an insufficiency of the light condition. Though this additional fussiness was not really intended by Emerson, it still served the mentioned purpose in the focusing process. We should remember that the developing and the printing process were for Emerson the main important stages in the artistic creation of a picture because with both of these processes Emerson tried to recreate the grey tones of a landscape, as they would appear in nature. With the development of a negative, one could bring out or hold back such grey tones to some extent to reach soft and neutral grey tones. Similarly with the printing process, which Emerson not only used to reproduce his picture for his illustrated books but also to create textured grey tones and to add clouds in the background in the photograph. The uses of both of these processes seem not to reflect what Emerson proclaimed was necessary to produce a realistic photograph. But he wanted to create an impression of nature, which was based on the visual quality of the human eye, and he used for this all the aforementioned photographic methods to reach this impression.


We found out that Emerson had used different sources in his argumentation to explain the visual qualities of his photography. One such source was Hermann von Helmholtz from which Emerson took the theoretical writings about the vision of the human eye and explained that the eye had more optical faults than a photographic lens and therefore the photograph should not be more in focus than the human eye possibly could. Another source was the influence of the French and English naturalistic school of painting, in particular the painters Jean François Millet and Thomas Frederick Goodall, from which he got his interest in landscape and rural scenes. We also discovered that Emerson only followed in some parts fully his own theory. For example the focusing practice reflects how the human eye optically visualises the surrounding world, and that the used exposure process does not show any indication of the immediate ‘essence of nature’ caught on the film plate. However, we understand now that Emerson’s statement to be ‘true to nature’ meant to use photography in such a way that it is possible to create an impression of nature. This meant that Emerson was manipulating relatively strongly the photographic medium in such way, as in the developing and printing process that the result would, in the end reflect a naturalistic picture. This is an important point to understand, Emerson’s belief that he could create true values at will. However, the main problem with that was that Emerson did not understand the relation to exposure, development and tonal density of the film plates. Just a year after Emerson published his theories, Hurter and Driffiels published their report, which deals exactly about this relationship, which Emerson had over looked. Even Emerson realised that he made a mistake and declared his theory redundant.

In conclusion the theory of naturalistic photography by Peter Henry Emerson was very much influenced by the same movement in painting, which can be seen with his connection to Goodall and the New English Art Club. These suggest that Emerson must have been influenced by this tendency and followed it up in photography, which contrasted the two extremes of Robinson’s High Art Photography and the scientific accurate photography as we saw it from Roger Fenton. Still open to investigation is the connection of F.Bate, Goodall and Emerson, which would prove that Emerson not only used the style of the naturalistic painting, but also their theory.

In concern to our question, Emerson practiced his theory of Naturalistic Photography in the sense of depicting a true impression of nature. However, it can be said that only partly this condition is met due to the nature of vagueness to define what impression meant for him. Although Emerson tried to establish scientific evidence to his theory with Hermann von Helmholtz’s popular writings he fails to follow this line and even condemns it by saying that photography should not follow science but art.

Not only is Emerson’s theory very weak but also his ideas about what was the proper practical usage of photography. On the one hand he stressed to his students that they should make pictures as the human eye sees it and also includes the differences from person to person but on the other hand he also promotes an artistic creative application of photography. We see that these two ideologies of course contradict each other completely because one cannot create freely and also follow factual visual impression at the same time, which is exactly what Emerson tried to promote in his book.

The main problem is that Emerson manipulated the pictures in such a way that it still remained true to his impression of nature and aesthetically pleasing. This he did by using exposure, development and printing methods in such a way that the pictures could be seen as art. Therefore one could say that Emerson did almost the same thing as Robinson, which was to achieve artistic photographs inspired by paintings and using all kinds of tricks to get the ideal result. Although Emerson condemned negative manipulation he still accepted to print from a different negative, which at the end counts also to be a pictorial manipulation of the photograph.

Although Emerson was not that strict in following his own theoretical principle he still achieved very natural looking and aesthetic pictures which in contrast to Robinson have not at all strong theatrical effects. Emerson’s scenes of Suffolk and Norfolk (fig.21) have a documentary feeling, which was another element that Emerson tried to integrate in his pictures. In this sense it seems that Naturalistic Photography has more to do with the idea of recording nature at it is with all the people living there and to provide a ethnographical evidence of life with help of a tool that recorded the more actual than a painting could ever do.

The attempt, which Emerson tried to do in his Naturalistic Photography, can be seen as a mixture of all different kinds of theories and ideologies. In itself it has basically no new elements, which had not been spoken out before. But still Emerson tried to give photography its own independence as an art form rather than to copy the styles of paintings. His idea of differential focusing was highly controversial and many times completely misunderstood and misused and in this sense Peter Henry Emerson was an important contributor to the Victorian photographic landscape, which probably lead to a more open approach of what artistic photography was at the turn of the century.



Imperfections of a lens that show a point as a patch and a straight line slightly curved. These imperfections are for example, Spherical Aberration, Astigmatism, and Dispersion.


A mechanism in a lens that allows the regulating of the amount of light passing through a lens by being opened or closed. The sign –f- indicates the maximal opening of a lens.


Optical imperfection of a lens, which does not focus the light rays onto one point.

Blind Spot

A point in the retina with no light receptors as this is the area where the nerves leave the eye and enter the optic nerve. (ill).


The separation of a white light beam into the colours of the spectrum. All transparent media have dispersion, for example a single lens as well as a triangular glass prism.


A mechanism in a camera that times the duration a light sensitive material is exposed to light.

Gelatine Dry Plate

After improvements by Dr. R.L. Maddox this film plate went into manufacture in 1878. It was coated by machine, which made sure the whole of the plate was evenly covered.

Neutral grey tone

The intermediate stage between the light intensity of white and black.


A photomechanical printing process with a copper plate where the ink is pressed below the surface of the image carrier.


Invented by William Willis in 1873 who established the Platinotype Company in 1879. This process was preferred by fine art photographers because it allowed highlights to receive more exposure with negatives with a larger tonal range.

Spherical Aberration 

Optical imperfection of a lens, which does not focus the light rays passing through the central lens and the surrounding lens into same point. (ill).


Primary Sources

Bate, Francis. The Naturalistic School of Painting. London: The Artist, 1887.

Emerson, P. H. Idylls of the Norfolk Broads. London: The Autotype Company, 1887.

Emerson, P. H. Pictures from Life in Field and Fen. London: George Bell and
Son, 1887.

Emerson, P. H. Pictures of East Anglian Life. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1888.

Emerson, P. H. Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art. London:
Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1889.

Emerson, P. H. The death of Naturalistic Photography. London:
Privatly published, 1890.

Emerson, P. H. On English Lagoons. London: Davis Nutt, 1893.

Emerson, P. H. Birds, Beasts and Fishes of the Norfolk Broadland. London:
David Nutt, 1895.

Emerson, P. H. Marsh Leaves. London: David Nutt, 1895.

Emerson, P. H. and Goodall. T. F. Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. London: Sampson Low, Marstonm Searle and Rivington, 1886.

Emerson, P. H. and Goodall. T.F. Notes on Perspective Drawings and Vision. London: W.Hall and Lovitt, 1891.

Von Helmoltz, Hermann. Handbook of Physiological Optics Vol.3. translated by George T. Ladd, New York: 1962.

Secondary Sources

Coe, Brian and Gates, Paul. The Snapshot Photograph: The rise of Popular Photography.  London: Ash and Grant, 1977.

Coe, Brian and Haworth-Booth, Mark. A Guide to Early Photographic Processes. London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983.

Eitner, Lorenz. Neoclassicism and Romanticism 1750-1850: Enlightenment /Revolution. ed. H.W. Jansen, London: Prenlice Hall International Inc., 1971.

Gernsheim, Helmut. The History of Photography: From the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969.

Gernsheim, Helmut. Creative Photography, Aesthetic Tendens 1839-1960. London: 1962.

Hamingway, Andrew. Landscape Imagery and Urban Culture in Early Nineteenth Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Handy, Ellen. Pictorial Effect, Naturalistic Vision: The Photographs and Theories of Henry Peach Robinson and Peter Henry Emerson.  Norfolk: The Chrysler Museum, 1994.

Hannavay, John. History in Camera: Victorian Photographers at Work. Buckinghamshire: Shir Publication Ltd., 1997.

Jay, Bill and Allen, Dana. History of Photography Monograph Series: Critics 1840-1880. Arizona: Arizona State Univerity, 1985.

Life and Landscape: P.H.Emerson, Art and Photography in East Anglia 1885-1900. ed. Niel McWilliam and Veronica Sekules, Norwich, 1986.

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography and its Critics: A Cultural History 1839-1900. New York: Cambridge Universety Press: 1997.

Newhall, Nancy. P.H. Emerson: The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art. New York: Aperture Monograph, 1975.

Turner, Peter and Wood, Richard. P.H. Emerson: Photographer of Norfolk. London: Gordon Fraser, 1974.

The Focal Encyclopedia at Photography. ed. Leslie Stroebel and Richard Zukia, London: Focal Press, 1993.


Durden, Mark. ‘Peter Henry Emerson: The Limits of Representation.’ History of Photography 18 (Autumn 1994): 281-4.

Fox, Megan. ‘The influence of the Pictorialists on the Art of Photography.’ Antiques 136 (July 1989): 120-31

Taylor, John. ‘Behind every landscape is a Woman: P.H.Emerson’s anxieties of class and gender’ Afterimage 21 (March 1994): 9-12.

Taylor, John. ‘Aristocrats of anthropology: A Study of P.H. Emerson and other Tourists on the Norfolk Broads.’ Image 35 (Spring-Summer 1992): 2-23.

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