“Art is a language, and pictorial art is the expression by means of pictures of that which man considers beautiful in the World around him.”
PH Emerson – from the introduction to Pictures from Life in Field and Fen
Dr. Peter Henry Emerson is one of those Victorian gentlemen, the likes of which we don’t find anymore. Born on a Cuban plantation, distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel Morse, PH Emerson is claimed by many to have had a bigger affect on Victorian photography than any of his contemporaries.
He was antagonistic, a provocateur to the newly formed establishment of photography. Trained as a doctor, Emerson gave up the profession to pursue photography. Although he published a number of books, and is now regarded as one of the great champions of photography as an art form, Emerson would remain essentially an amateur.
“Do not call yourself an ‘artist-photographer’ and make ‘artist-painters’ and ‘artist-sculptors’ laugh; call yourself a photographer and wait for artists to call you brother.”
Martin Parr and Gerry Badger pointed me towards Emerson’s Marsh Leaves. I’m slowly making my way through The Photobook: A History Volume 1 and trying to see as many of the books myself first hand. It’s nice to have an excuse to visit the British Library.
I was drawn to Marsh Leaves for a number of reasons: The thought of delving into the Norfolk Marshes through the eyes of a late-Nineteenth Century Pictorialist was pretty exciting, especially in relationship to my own book project on the (somewhat different) Hackney Marshes. The combination of anecdotal text and pastoral images also sounded intriguing. (My book with Samuel Wright combines a form of landscape photography with short stories.) There was also something about the way Parr and Badger described the bleak, wintery images that made me want to see them for myself. I like minimal imagery. I like winter. I like melancholy.
The book itself is pretty rare. The British Library only has one copy and Emerson produced only 50 copies of the work in 1895. There is definitely something exciting about being handed something so rare and unique, knowing that for the next however many hours I was going to have this book all to myself.
Emerson was a staunch naturalist. He wasn’t keen on manipulation. “The photographic technique is perfect and needs no… bungling,” he wrote in his book Naturalistic Photography for students of Art published in 1889, and the 16 photo-etched images in Marsh Leaves are certainly naturalistic. Wintery and minimal, the images quietly appear from behind sheets of protective tracing paper. They are given romantic, melancholic titles such as The Lone Lagoon (Plate II) and The Misty River (Plate VIII). They are almost entirely people-less, which enhances the romance heaped by Emerson onto the landscape. It is only really through the texts – short anecdotal vignettes – that the book as a whole comes to life. Although the writing style itself is, like the imagery, rooted in its time, there seems something strikingly modern about Emerson’s non-narrative approach to the structure of the book. Characters appear without introduction and disappear just as quickly.
Wherrymen, marshmen and ferrymen; hobble-de-hoys, flockmasters and horse-dealers. Men of the land share the stage with ladies of the manor. Flowery, flamboyant prose is juxtaposed with simple matter-of-fact speech.
Emerson describes a dike fire he witnessed as, “… One long, lambent tongue of flickering fire rising from a blue, vapoury mist, and filling the ambient air with a delicate fragrance of charred flowers.” Whereas a marshman Emerson encounters tells him of a time he struggled to kill a ferret:
“Think I, I’ll kill you again, so I got the spade and flattened him out till his eyes started from his head and his chops frothed and runned blood, then I hurled him onto the ice again. Now, blow me, as I start watching on him, if he didn’t get up and begin running on the ice. That was no use hitting on him, I couldn’t kill him, so I drowned him.”
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