Jennifer M. Green
Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, (1995)
Unlike the work of the early great Victorian landscape photographers, Peter Henry Emerson’s late-nineteenth-century visions of rural southeast England offer no startling geometries or precocious angles. Scenes more reminiscent of Impressionist paintings than of anything in photography’s own short history, they illustrate their author’s early claims for photography as a naturalistic art. Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886), Emerson’s first published photographic book, was in fact a practical account of his theories, with its own labors of picture making and writing neatly divided: where the photographs provided “art for lovers of art,” the accompanying text was to be “illustrative of and somewhat complementary to them . . . depicting in words, surroundings and effects which cannot be expressed by pictorial art.” The book appears aptly named, with its equal emphasis on representing human and animal life in its surrounds of marsh, fenlands, and coastal waters. Further, in its deliberate efforts to counter the studied theatricality of photographs such as those by Henry Peach Robinson, Emerson’s experiments in naturalism succeed: the pictures are, for the most part, unposed, and there is a freedom, as critics have noted, from artificiality and sentimentality.
Emerson’s aim was to use the camera impressionistically, to record neither the literal facts of the self-conscious documentary nor the simulated events of Robinson’s studio, but rather to create a sense of human vision—to work, in other words, against the notion of the camera as a tool of perfect record and to claim it instead as an agent in naturalistic and aesthetic creation. 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.