Peter Henry Emerson, The Old Order and the New, 1885, printed 1886. Platinum print, 11.9 x 23.2 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Life in Norfolk: Photographs by Peter Henry Emerson

In 1886, the British writer and photographer Peter Henry Emerson created his first book of photographs, devoted to the countryside and the working people of the Norfolk Broads (a system of interconnecting rivers and lakes and surrounding low lying wetland) in eastern England. During the late 19th century, these waterways became a popular spot for tourism and recreational sailing. It was here that Emerson would collaborate with the painter Thomas F. Goodall on the book Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. The compendium comprises 40 photographic plates that were first conceived of as albumen prints, but for the book Emerson made platinum prints, whose gentle tonal gradations were perfectly suited to the atmospheric conditions of the marshlands. In a later edition, Life and Landscape appeared with photogravure plates.

Peter Henry Emerson, A Ruined Water-mill, 1885, printed 1886. Platinum print, 26.9 x 22.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Emerson was born to a British mother and an American father, who owned and managed both a sugar and a coffee plantation. Emerson and his family left Cuba for the United States around 1867, where he attended school in Delaware. After the death of his father, the family moved to England. 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 in order to facilitate his bird-watching hobby. The same year, he exhibited his work in Pall Mall through the auspices of the Photographic Society of Great Britain.

Peter Henry Emerson, Gathering Waterlilies, 1885, printed 1886. Platinum print, 19.9 x 29.1 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

All of the photographs in the Norfolk series concentrate on life and work in the marsh. Gathering waterlilies is the ninth image in the book and is in many ways a visual demonstration of the photographic style that Emerson promoted in Naturalistic Photography, published in 1889. In this handbook, he urged other photographers to abandon the conventional practice of crafting images from more than one negative and to create photographs that employed what he called "differential focusing," a method of photographing where not everything in the image was of equal sharpness. This, Emerson argued, was more true to the way human vision worked. Here a woman leans over the boat in order to gather the waterlilies that are used as bait by fishermen. Her shadow and those of the man, oars and boat are mirrored in the still water that surrounds them: a daily act frozen for eternity in an image of quiet harmony between the workers and the landscape in which they toil.


This article is an edited extract from Lori Pauli's book 19th-century British Photographs, published by the National Gallery of Canada in 2011. For a full details of the Gallery's works by Peter Henry Emerson, see the online collectionShare this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.

About the Author