V&A, London and Nottingham Castle Museum: P.H. Emerson, Presented By The Author
Peter Henry Emerson (b. Cuba 1856 – d. UK 1936) was one of the most pioneering photographers – and opinionated writers – of the late 19th century. His interests were eclectic, and included medicine, sports, genealogy, anthropology, and ornithology. Between 1881 and 1895 he devoted his life to photography and writing about rural life in East Anglia, particularly the Norfolk Broads.
Defined by one critic as ‘The Courbet of England’, Emerson argued for naturalism in photography and developed influential photographic techniques, such as ‘selective focus’. Inspired by early theories of perception, he wanted to preserve the way the human eye sees nature – not as sharply as a photographic lens. His fervent and public opposition to other, more ‘artificial’, Victorian photographers, such as Henry Peach Robinson, has become a classic episode in the history of photography. Unexpectedly, in 1890 Emerson recanted his view that photography was an art, although he continued to publish incredible pictorial books, accompanying his images with his writing until 1895.
With works drawn from the V&A and the Castle’s own collections, and presented in our new temporary exhibition gallery, this exhibition explores the artist’s modes of presenting his photographs to the public. Published as exquisite portfolios of photogravures, or as beautiful bound pictorial books, or as stand-alone large scale prints, the objects on display will reveal Emerson’s fascinating editorial vision and intriguing writings. Furthermore, the inclusion of archival documents from the V&A sheds light on the ways in which Emerson carefully controlled the circulation of his work.
The exhibition is curated by Federica Chiocchetti as part of Nottingham Castle’s partnership with the V&A via their Curatorial Fellowship Programme, supported by the Art Fund.
Chiocchetti accompanied the exhibition with a one-day symposium to explore Emerson’s fascinating life, photographic vision and writings with speakers including Martin Barnes (Senior Curator of Photographs, V&A, London), Dr Hope Kingsley (Curator, Education and Collections, Wilson Centre for Photography), Prof David Matless (Cultural Geography, University of Nottingham),Edith Marie Pasquier (Artist and Researcher, Royal College of Art, London) and Stephen Hyde (Nottinghamshire-born great-grandson of P.H. Emerson).