View From A Lens

View From A Lens

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” Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “The Old Order and the New: P. H. Emerson and Photography, 1885-1895”. Accessed March 8, 2016.

Jon Stringer, The Life and Work of Dr. P.H. Emerson, Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “Gustave Courbet”. Accessed March 8, 2016.

Unknown. “Gustave Courbet Biography”. Accessed March 8, 2016.