Naturalistic Photography

It all started with George Davison (1854 – 1930) and a deceptively simple image,originally titled, An Old Farmstead. This charming photograph, reminiscent of an Impressionist landscape, was awarded a medal at the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1890. Later retitled with a more descriptive and less nostalgic name, The Onion Field, Mersea Island, Essex (1890) was taken with a very old technique, the pin hole camera. According to photo-historian Helmut Gernsheim in his book, Creative Photography: Aesthetic Trends, 1839-1960, Davison, a follower of Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) wanted to soften the focus and to create an effect more akin to the beauty of a fine art print than that of a machine made image. The Times praised the photograph for its “atmospheric effects.” But his version or vision of Impressionism only angered Emerson, who apparently considered Davison’s ideas about photography to be misguided and spoke out strongly against him, in one of the many internal disputes that accompanied the re-definition of photography. Initially, Davison caused nothing beyond conversation about the “fuzzy” school of photography but when he submitted an image late to an exhibition of the Photographic Society, the petty dispute broke out in to a schism that led to a secession of a large group of the members. Both Emerson and Davison were “Links,” among the twelve founding members of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, along with Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), with whom Davison, called the “Lord High Executioner,” shared the duties of “hanging” the exhibitions. Emerson’s problem with Davison was, as shall be seen, that Davison used a pinhole camera to achieve a certain effect, while Emerson himself grounded his photography on scientific and philosophical concepts on human vision.


George Davison. The Onion Field, Mersea Island, Essex (1890)

In dealing with the ongoing debates within art photography, it is necessary to understand the increasing gulf between art and documentation and, in addition, the removal of the technology from the hands of the practitioners. However, there was a long tradition of photography as being part of a collective scientific endeavor, and the photographic theories of Emerson reflected the union of the camera and scientific experimentation. His ideas about how a photograph could become a work of art were very different from those of Robinson who, in his book, Pictorial Effect in Photography. Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro for Photographers (1869), insisted that a photograph should follow the rules of painting, i.e., art. Reading Robinson’s book, supposedly for photographer, is like reading a how-to book for artists in a studio, not a darkroom. Robinson does not take into account the technique of photographing but stresses the significance of composition and design so that the final content or subject matter was so unified, it could be fully comprehended or “read” by the viewer and needed no explanation. As Robinson stated, “..if a picture is to be successful, it must have a nonsense of purpose or intention, a oneness of story, a oneness of thought, a oneness of lines, a oneness of night and shade. Everything must have a meaning, and the meaning must be the object of the picture..” In contrast to Robinson’s composite work, Emerson, insisted in his book, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889), that photography should follow the lead, not of painting, which had nothing to do with a camera, but the science of human vision–the eye of which the lens was the counterpart.

Did the human eye “see” the same as the camera eye, the all-knowing lens? According to the theories of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), who began his groundbreaking research on the human eye in 1851, developed an instrument–the first of its kind–the the ophthalmoscope to observe the retina, and the ophthalmoscope to study the curvature of the eye, both of which allowed him to study the properties of vision. In his 1855 essay, “Accommodation,” Helmholz revealed that the eye, far from being perfect, had a defect that caused an astigmatism, meaning that we, as humans, cannot see horizontal and vertical lines at the same distance at the same time. As Helmholz said later, “The Human eye is not even centered, the magnitude of the corneal eccentricity appears to be quite irregular and adventitious, and so on.” In 1885 Helmholtz’s essay “The Recent Progress of the Theory of Vision” (1868) was translated and published in English. It is impossible to determine who well Emerson understood Helmholtz’s scientific ideas, which, according to his biographer,  Leo Koenigsberger, were very complex and embedded in Kantian philosophy. Helmholtz worked in the gap between Kant’s epistemology, a theory of human knowledge investigating the interaction between perception–vision–and conception–the way in which the brain organizes data received through the eyes. It is well-known that the mind corrects vision to the extent that we are shielded from our “actual” vision, or how the eye itself sees. As Koenigsberger wrote in Hermann von Helmholtz (1906), “After pointing out in the lecture that physical science still professes the principles of Kant (whose Philosophy does not add to the content of cognition by pure thought, but derives all perception of reality from experience, and makes the sources of our knowledge and the degree  of its justification the sole objects of investigation), he proposes the theory of Sense-Perception in man as the real theme of his lecture, since it is here that philosophy and natural science are most in touch. He inquires how the empirical data for the organ of the eye stand in relation to the philosophical theory of knowledge.” 


In 1886, Emerson incorporated the ideas of Helmholtz into his own photographic work, a series called, “Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads,” the result of a collaboration with the painter Thomas Goodall, who wrote an accompanying essay on landscape and art. And Goodall was a member of the New English Art Club, which published a journal named The Artist. It was in this periodical that Emerson saw reproductions of works by James Whistler. Whistler was hitting his stride, nearing his peak as an artist, attracting followers and disciples, tempering his reputation for being “notorious” by joining the relatively staid Society of British Artists. As Elizabeth Prettejohn pointed out in her 1999 book, After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England, the word “Impressionism” was used to indicate the French artists and Whistler’s tonal paintings. Whistler’s paintings and how he painted them were quite different from any of the numerous French Impressionists, but, in order to understand British Pictorialism, it is necessary to stress that the English artists responded to their Anglo-American colleague, as Prettejohn wrote, “Characteristic of the English version was the use of a restricted palette, which kept the painting to a close variation in tone rather than color contrasts.” When Emerson became acquainted with the work of Whistler, the artist was a force to be reckoned with, and the impact of his nocturnes, which, as Prettejohn pointed out, were “tonal,” and thus more easily translated to photography than the work of the French Impressionists, who worked with colors, not tone, and clarifying light, not obscuring atmosphere.

It is possible to make an argument that the particularly English version of Impressionism and hence of Pictorialism was due to the local climate, its famous fogs and rains and general dampness. The forty images lyrically responded to life in the marshlands and fenlands of East Anglia and its inhabitants, studied and captured in the act of scratching out a living in what was life of peasant life in England. In the same year he gave a lecture entitled, “Photography A Pictorial Art,” introducing his main themes that photography should resemble a picture, not a photograph. At this point in time, the amateur had been making photographs only four years. His serene and beautiful photographs the farmers and fishermen of this border territory between land and sea were softened in order to mimic the irregularities of the human eye, but the photographs also functioned as the anthropologist’s examination of a group of people whose way of life was facing extinction. However, these images were not documents and although Emerson distanced himself from the subjects, the laborers, with his camera techniques, he deliberately sought certain exemplary “types,” linking his artistic images to the mindset of classification, typical of the period. Jennifer M. Green commented on Emerson’s procedures in her 1995 article, “The Right Thing in the Right Place. P. H. Emerson and the Picturesque Photograph,” explaining how his work in Norfolk–both text and image–represented his “early claims for Photography as a naturalistic art.” “Yet the relation between life and landscape on the Norfolk Broads is one not of aesthetics but of labor; and labor provides the true subject  of these pictures. Between Emerson’s theories photography and his conceptions landscape, however, that subject vanishes into the picturesque, the laborers themselves reduced to mythical, powerless creatures, faceless models of charming work..the accompanying photographs in this and other books by Emerson present increasingly romanticized and abstracted views of life in rural Norfolk and Suffolk.


Peter Henry Emerson. Ricking the Reed (1886)

Clearly, given the intent of Emerson, the laborers and their “trades” were objects of aesthetic pleasure to the eye, representations of how a photograph could become a work of art. Despite the Impressionistic surface of his nostalgic platinum prints, Emerson approached photography with an academic intellectualism and a zeal for proselytizing among his fellow amateurs. His seminal work, Naturalistic Photography, has been described as having the impact of a “bombshell dropped at a tea party,” although the identity of the original author of his clever riposte seems to have been long lost. Emerson himself wrote, “Nothing in nature has ahard outline, but everything is seen against something else, and itsoutlines fade gently into something else, often so subtly that youcannot quite distinguish where one ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lays all the charmand mystery of nature.” Described as a “gentleman of letters,” Cuban-born, American-educated Emerson drifted into photography, entered into to the debates of the 1880s and proved himself to be a pugnacious combatant. A photographer should work in the terms of nature itself, not in terms of art, meaning that the photograph should mimic the human eye–focus at the center and blurriness around the edges. The image should be the sharpest and most clear at the focal point, or the main center of attention, an effect that can be achieved with certain camera lenses and, although Emerson denied it, some manipulation during the developing stage. Unlike Robinson who responded to academic art, Emerson modeled himself artistically after the Impressionist paintings which were becoming well-known in London by the end of the century. As one might expect of a close relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Peter Henry Emerson recommended a close relationship with nature which should be lived in, not just visited on sketching trips. By becoming closer to the landscape and its culture, the photographer could achieve an inner vision or internal command of a “sense of place” which allows the artist to reveal the “mystery of nature.”


Peter Henry Emerson. Marsh Reeds (1895)

By thinking in terms of “landscape,” Emerson was also remaking upon what his society, the Victorian culture, considered to be a “picture.” In fact, Naturalistic Photography is very much a how-to manual, combining a history of photography, his philosophical position on how photography should be undertaken, and instructions on the techniques of making a photograph. In his section on terminology, Emerson explained in his pedantic tone, “to Us Impressionism means the same thing as naturalism, but since the word allows so much latitude to he artist, even to verging on absurdity, we prefer the term Naturalism, because in the latter the work can always be referred to a standard–Nature.” But responding to nature–the visual response, not the emotional reaction–is complex. As Emerson stated, there is a theoretically perfect physical image has been described by physicists as being both bright and sharp in definition but the theoretically perfect image does not exist. Emerson noted that in both the human eye and with the photographic lenses there are faults, such as “dispersion” which causes a “slight blurring of the sharpness of outline, since the size and position of the optical images thrown by the differently bent rays is not the same.” Emerson quoted Helmholtz as saying that the vision of the “central spot” was “imperfect.” He continued, “We have shown why the human eye does not see nature exactly as she is, but sees instead a number of signs which represent nature, signs which the eye grows accustomed to, and which form habit we call nature herself..The great heresy of ‘sharpness’ has lived so long in photographic circles because firstly the art has been practiced by scientists, and secondly by unphilosophical scientists, for all through the lenses has been considered purely from the physical int of view, the far more important psychological and psychoschological standpoints being entirely ignored..”

The notion of differential focus–sharpness on the element apparently gazed upon directly and soft focus around the edges–was Emerson’s labored attempt to situate photography in the realm of nature, the natural, by means of science, thus escaping technology. To the reader today, the unanswerable question is if Impressionist painting had not made forms without linear edges and paintings without details acceptable, what would Emerson’s photographs looked like? There is an interesting and coincidental confluence between Pictorialism and the theories of Helmholtz on the irregular and imperfect vision of the human eye. For two decades, the soft focus, aided with surface manipulation on the photograph itself seemed to be the means to convince the art public of photography’s freedom from the camera’s dictates. For example, despite the availability of very sharp lenses, the pinhole camera, which did not use lenses became very popular, and by 1892, some four thousand of them had been sold in London alone.  In answering his critics, Emerson said,

“Some persons are laboring under a great misconception; we have nothing whatever to do with any ‘fuzzy school.’ Fuzziness, to us, meaning destruction of structure. We do advocate broad suggestions of organic structure, which is a very different thing from destruction, although there may at times be occasions in which patches of “fuzziness” will help the picture, yet these are rare indeed, and it would be very difficult for any one to show us many such paths in our published plates. We have, then, nothing to do with “fuzziness” unless by the term is meant that broad and ample generalization of detail, so necessary to artistic work..” 

Eventually Peter Henry Emerson, who had studied to be a doctor, grew tired of the internal arguments within the ranks of British amateurs in art photography, gave up on photography altogether in 1900 and retired from the ranks of active artists.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

14 + 5 =