With the introduction of the camera, early photographers struggled over whether or not to classify their work as art or science. They were correct that science played a large part in the development of this medium. Advances in the chemicals used, the mobility of the equipment and the processing time points to a science form. In fact, if it were not for science, photography would not have advanced as far as it has. On the subject of whether or not to call early photography art. I say, “yes, indeed!”

I was captivated by the photography of Peter Henry (P.H.) Emerson from the moment I saw it, images of common people doing their work. Most of Emerson’s work is centered around the Norfolk Broads.

While many may see Emerson’s work as journalistic in nature, since he set out to document the Norfolk Broads before they changed due to tourism and industry. He viewed his work as an art form…at first. He felt that photos should have a focal point with the rest of the background “falling away.” Emerson believed this “differential focus” technique was truer to the way that the human eye saw the world.

This need for more “naturalistic” works is similar to Gustave Courbet’s work. Courbet, a prominent French painter known as one of the founders of the Realism movement, believed that art should address social issues of the times. Hence, why painting subjects should be of real life and what the artist can see firsthand. Photography was just another medium in the realist art world.


The Stone Breakers, 1849, Gustave Courbet

As Emerson captured the common man working the land, Courbet did the same with paint. In a way, with the use of light and shadows, Courbet used “differential focus” also.

As Courbet was a recognized artist, Emerson, too, saw his photographs as works of art. He would publish the photographs in a collection, and then destroy the plates so that no other prints could be made. Doing so, demonstrated that his works were exclusive pieces, which appeased art enthusiasts.

After a while, Emerson became frustrated with the limitation of photography. The science behind the camera could not keep up with his artistic desires. Emerson published a pamphlet, “The Death of Naturalistic Photograph,” denouncing that photography was the “lowest of the arts.”


Works cited:

Easby, Rebecca Jeffrey, “Early Photography: Niépce, Talbot and Muybridge” https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/early-photography/a/early-photography-nipce-talbot-and-muybridge. Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “The Old Order and the New: P. H. Emerson and Photography, 1885-1895”. http://getty.edu/art/exhibitions/emerson/. Accessed March 8, 2016.

Jon Stringer, The Life and Work of Dr. P.H. Emerson, http://people.netcom.co.uk/j.stringe/page3.html. Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “Gustave Courbet”. http://www.gustavecourbet.org/ Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “Gustave Courbet Biography”. http://arthistory.about.com/cs/namescc/p/courbet.htm. Accessed March 8, 2016.







4 thoughts on “View From A Lens

  1. I agree – photographs of people doing everyday things are captivating to look at because it feels like a glimpse into a time machine. I find it rather interesting that Emerson took photos of ordinary subjects and considered it art, yet there were journalists photographing the Civil War at the same time doing ordinary things, only for documenting.
    I found on this website: http://people.netcom.co.uk/j.stringe/page3.html that his style of photographing with only a sharp subject and everything else being blurry was highly controversial for the times, because after the camera was invented everyone’s goal was to take the sharpest pictures possible. He thought outside the box, which is what all artists must do.


  2. Good work on explaining how everything about photography back then could in some way be a frustrating field due to limited scientific study towards it. I like that you picked Peter Henry Emerson he was definitely a talented person making the affect to help people view photography a form of art but it is also a form of science back then. I remember doing a photograph lab in my chemistry class and it was not easy to get a good enough saturation or getting to much. I like that there is so much meaning and purpose that can be put into photos but not as much now a days because everyone can take a pictures.


  3. It was very interesting reading about photography in this era. I enjoyed the part about how Courbet used his paintings to document the events of that era while it was also an artistic piece. A very nice example of how the social issues, politics, etc influenced the art. The lighting in his painting reminded me of using a flashlight. You see the main point of whatever you’re focusing it on, while everything in the back is darker and less focused. Emerson was also a really great photographer. It’s unfortunate how limited he was back then with photography. Just imagine what he could do today with the advancement in science and technology!


  4. I can’t help but wonder, that if Emerson were alive today, would he still hold the statement claiming that photography is the lowest form or art? However, I feel that today’s photography (from the common user or cameras, now made entirely accessible by our smartphones) lacks the rawness that he was able to capture. With that being said, our technological advances in photography are astounding, but we still enjoy using the old techniques. I personally would love to learn how to process photos. I found an interesting article that goes through some of the “best” pictures taken. http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photos/milestones-photography/#/niepce-first-photo_1459_600x450.jpg


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