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.

„Naturalistic Photography:
The Theory and Practice of
Peter Henry Emerson“

Zoltan Szalay

Ausstellungsmacher – Lehrer – Pressefotograf. Alle diese Tätigkeiten beziehen sich auf ein und dieselbe Person, auf Zoltan Szalay. Jedoch was wir nicht vergessen dürfen ist, dass Szalay auch ein ungarischer Landsmann ist. Wie Sie aus den Medien vernommen haben, war am 1. Mai der Stichtag für die Osterweiterung der Europäischen Union, zu welcher nun auch Ungarn gehört. Dieses Ereignis bringt uns die wichtigen Eckpunkte der jüngeren Geschichte von Ungarn wieder in unser Gedächtnis. Einerseits der am 23. Oktober 1956 niedergeschlagene Volksaufstand, und andererseits die Wende, auch am 23. Oktober, jedoch im Jahr 1989 mit der Proklamation der Demokratie und der Ungarischen Republik. Während dieser Zeit arbeitet Zoltan Szalay als Pressefotograf und fängt somit den Zeitgeist dieser Epoche in seinen Fotografien ein. Es ist eine Epoche, die bildlich gesprochen mit dem eisernen Vorhang illustriert werden kann, die somit ein ambivalentes Verhältnis der aufdeckenden und ergründenden Pressefotografie verdeutlicht.

Geboren 1935 in Budapest, war Szalay bereits1954 Berichterstatter bei Févarosi Foto Company und nach dem Militärdienst (1955/56) während 30 Jahren Mitarbeiter von Radio Üjsag. Schon 1962 wurden seine Fotografien mit der Goldmedaille von MADOME, der ungarischen Fotografengesellschaft, ausgezeichnet. Seit 1964 war er als Mitarbeiter beim Tükör Magazin und 1972 bei Üj Tükör tätig. Ab 1981 organisiert er die jährlichen Pressefoto-Ausstellungen. Von 1983 bis 1990 war er Bildredaktor bei Magyar Hirlap bzw. Kurir, und 1992 gab er das Fotoalbum „Parliament“ heraus. Dann, 1993 arbeitete er als Bildredaktor bei Blikk und seit 1995 ist er als freischaffender Fotograf tätig. Szalay gilt als Lehrer und Vorbild für viele junge ungarische Fotografen, die er mit seiner Arbeitsweise und mit strengen Regeln zur Pressefotografie inspiriert hat. Im Jahr 2000 wurde Szalay mit dem Pulitzerpreis sowie dem Tancsice Mihaly Preis geehrt. Seit 1996 werden seine Fotografien zum Zyklus „Gesichter der Musik“ in zahlreichen Museums-Ausstellungen in Ungarn gezeigt. 1999 stellte das „Ungarische National Museum“ in Budapest seinen Foto – Zyklus „Gesichter, Augen, Gesten“ aus und 2002 die „Ungarische National Galerie“ in Budapest seinen Foto – Zyklus „Vier Jahreszeiten auf dem Weinberg“

„Zoltan Szalay“ weiterlesen