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The film, Finding Emerson

Tomorrow, St.George's Theatre, Great Yarmouth, 7.30pm, I'll be showing a short film on the nineteenth century photographer, Peter Henry Emerson. The film is a lyrical insight into the importance of Emerson's work in relation to today and why he is regarded as one of the fathers of modern photography.

[The full text to the film I've added at the bottom of this post].

Peter Henry Emerson, A Broadsman's Cottage, 1885

Mark Cator, Cow's heading to Marshes, 1990's

Mark Cator, Breydon Water, 2011


And what of winter?

Dead time my man

with days set in motion

by a hair’s-breadth of dawn.

Graveyard weather

when the cold wraps around you

like a coat that you want to be rid of

and the trees stand frozen into a thousand hallelujahs.

The gate at the end of the garden

is where the start

of all my boyhood dreams settle.

I pick up the memories

on a blue spring day

falling in grass

that tickles the back of older skin

unseen in green clouds

traversing time’s whisper

into the delicious recesses

that place entrusts.

High above the swifts make their turns

and I lift my hands to the spiralling

columns of dizzying mosquitoes

before making the crossing.

I’ve circled within Emerson. This world of his that is long gone. This time of his when being worldly was to understand the world you lived in.

I grew up with Emerson, I grew around Emerson and wondered why a man, who himself grew up on a sugar plantation in Cuba, trained as a physician in London, qualified as a surgeon, ended up immortalising the life and landscapes of the Norfolk Broads, Breydon Water and Great Yarmouth through his photographs and words, between the years 1885 to 1890.

His photographs transcended everything when I was young. That there existed a time governed by seasons, that worlds existed within worlds. To laze a day watching a blue sky or passing cloud, lying in the litter of dead reeds, with the inscrutable gaze of Emerson looking on, I knew I would struggle to find the world he lived and photographed.

I scratched along the fringes of his existence, publishing Marshland in 2005, a collection of landscapes and portraits taken along the River Bure as it flowed through the unique system of waterways, reedbeds and alder carr before exiting into the sea at the town of Great Yarmouth. For me this was a land of water-borne dreaming, a thousand hallelujahs, eerie incandescence, songs of laughter, hangdog days spiked by the onrush of a storm, people known or met and subsequently cajoled to stand in-front of the camera like the freezing of time and weather. Here was that place to hide, run free, shout, catch onto a cloud, or wallow in isolation.

After Marshland I began to photograph a passing world. I looked at the man-made, the chronology of destruction and creation. I grappled with the paradigms of convenience and confinement and the nostalgic visual legacy of the post-industrial landscape. I wrote of draughtboard topographies under Perspex and when finished, I headed off to Breydon Water to see if I could once more discover Emerson’s world. A world out there beyond the immutable babble of birds, a world out there beyond the flat expanse of land hunkered down in an­­­­ impermanence of decay.

The landscape is much as it was when he published, Wild Life on a Tidal Water, in 1890. I’m able to roam this expanse of wilderness at will, and when I bring to life his photographs, there is something utterly absorbing to realise that we have lost an existence which had audience with its’ surrounds. The punt gunners, smelters, wherrymen and wildfowlers in P.H.Emerson’s photographs have long disappeared, but the sentiment of place remains, endlessly steered by the vast skies and the daily churn of the tides.

Peter Henry Emerson, photographer, artist, naturalist, physician, writer, the list is endless, died in 1936 all but forgotten by the art world he ignited in the 1880’s. It took until 1975 and the publication of Nancy Newhall’s book, ‘P.H.Emerson: The Fight for Photography as a Fine art’, for the world to realise that he was one of the great pioneers of modern photography and how, through his determination and weight of belief, he had changed the perception of photography for all time.

He entered photography in a blaze, casting aside the prevailing artistic attitudes. Convinced, that the photographic discipline had been constrained by an overdependence on topographical accuracy on the one hand and on manipulated pastiches of paintings on the other, he set about challenging the photographic establishment. He championed his technique of differential focusing, where only one part of the image was in sharp focus and all else fell away into being marginally less focused. He worked out an aesthetic based on photography’s unique powers. He wrote the first manual on straight photography as an art in its own right, which was aptly described as, “a bombshell dropped at a tea party.” He passionately believed in pure photography and its power to convey “truth to nature.” He was the first to utilise photography and text to explore the relationship with subject. He was tireless in his pursuit, a whirlwind, enigmatic, opiniated, brusque, arrogant but above all, honest.

He railed against the leading exponents of art photography, saving his fiercest invectives for the likes of Henry Peach Robinson with their combination prints, classical studies and sentimental pictorialism that fed into the Victorian ideal of countryfolk and their ways. Robinson felt that it was beneath him to photograph labourers or peasants going about their lives and went to elaborate ends to recreate his saccharine fantasies in his studio. Emerson meanwhile was explaining to a packed room at the Priory Hall in Great Yarmouth, that art was enslaved except when the artist went to Nature for his subject matter. And he did just that, spending three months with his great friend, the painter T.F.Goodall, moored out on Breydon Water, in view of the “sea-stained” town, in a cranky old houseboat, the Electra, and a beery giant of a fisherman called Joey. He records in prosaic detail the characters he meets, or who drop in to visit him. Reading the text of, Wildlife on a Tidal Water, we come to know the fisherman, Harnsee, the hunter Pintail, the smelt fishermen Crab and Cyclops and we join the crowds in the pubs discussing medicinal cures and ghosts.

Emerson experienced the lives of those he photographed at first hand, spending far more time in listening to their stories and observing their daily routines than he would photographing them. Although he saw his work as art photography, his output in the form of extensive portfolios with descriptive text was more in the realm of concerned documentary photographer. In his, Pictures of East Anglian Life, he supports the plight of the peasant against that of the farmer and the new landowners and in doing so was seen by his contemporaries as a troublemaker. “Mean landlords hire these desecrators of the landscape and tell them to run up a row of cottages, everything included, for a paltry sum. Up they go like mushrooms”. This he wrote in 1887 but it could equally be applied to today.

He was tireless in his pursuit, rigorous in his determination and his words and images speak not only for his supremacy as an artist but for those he photographed, and their way of life. Never before had text and image been paired together with equal attention given to both and in the ten years between 1885 and 1895 he produced eight astonishing portfolios of photographs, blending the scientific with the artistic, with his call of “truth to nature” and in doing so launched photography itself on to a trajectory from which it never looked back.

He exited the world of photography in as dramatic a way as his entry and in his enigmatic style, he left the stage with a blistering treatise on, The Death of Naturalistic Photography. After his last and arguably his best portfolio, Marsh Leaves, which he published in 1895, he lay down his cameras and never took another photograph, spending the next 40 years as if he was a stranger to himself. Still writing, still corresponding, still the restless tireless spirit but as if he too, was finding Emerson.

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