Peter Henry Emerson was born in Cuba and travelled to a remote, low lying marshland in England’s East Anglia. He came to know and love it with a passion.
“As I stood admiring just before sunrise, the reed-tops bending under their beautiful crystal heads, rooks came flying from a wood near by, and a vast flock of peewits darkened the sky. As the yellow sun arose in frosty splendour mists began to rise on the river, and there followed a brief spell of magic beauty ere the thickening mists began to bury everything as they blew in fitful gusts from the river”.Emerson, in On English Lagoons (1893)
His mother was British, his father, who owned and managed both a sugar and a coffee plantation was an American. Emerson left Cuba with his family for the United States around 1867, where he attended school in Delaware. After his father’s death, the family moved to England. Here Emerson studied medicine, but gave it up after graduating from Cambridge and began to learn the art of photography under the tutelage of the physicist Ernest Griffiths.
He purchased his first camera in 1882 at age 26 in order to facilitate his hobby of bird-watching. Perhaps it was a search for birds that took him to the Norfolk Broads.
Contemporaries described him as a difficult zealot. He vocally championed a naturalistic approach to imagemaking. He favored rural subjects presented in a simple, direct manner. Emerson’s influential 1889 book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art outlined his opinion that photography’s ability to record nature truthfully was its most expressive one. He argued that the photograph should imitate nature rather than alter it.
A passionate lecturer and writer on photography, Emerson never minced his words and thus earned himself as many foes as supporters. He was an early champion of photography as fine art, and became the unofficial godfather of the 1902 Photo-Secessionist movement, founded by Alfred Stieglitz.
He created his first book of photographs in 1886. It was devoted to the countryside and the working people of the Norfolk Broads (a system of interconnecting rivers, dykes and lakes and surrounding low lying wetland) in eastern England. These waterways had become a popular spot for tourism and recreational sailing in the late 19th century. It was here that Emerson would collaborate with the painter Thomas F. Goodall on the book Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. The book comprises 40 photographic plates – platinum prints, whose gentle tonal gradations were perfectly suited to the atmospheric conditions of the marshlands.