Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff, from the album Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, 1886. Platinum print, 10-3/4x15-1/8".
Emerson and Naturalism
By: Rachel Norris (Point Park University, Photography BFA Candidate)
As the photographic world entered into the new phase of Pictorialism, Peter Henry Emerson was developing theories of his own called Naturalism. He disagreed with Henry Peach Robinson and others like him for their self-conscious and painterly photographs. Emerson viewed photography as a medium that stood alone, combining art and science. Naturalism encompassed his goal of raising the status of photographic art. It was “founded on his premise that camera images could engage the senses and emotions in a naturalistic manner. Instead of the supernatural, naturalism sought to explain all phenomena through natural forces” (Hirsch, p. 148). The artists working with Emerson, like him, were in search for release from the mystical explanation of their world and hungry for empiricism. Instead of looking for reasons, it adamantly sought causes.
Peter Henry Emerson was not only a photographer; he was a man of medicine, a billiard player, a naturalist and a writer. His writings were largely neglected except for Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, which backed Emerson’s superiority in theory (Turner, p. 66). “According to Emerson’s naturalistic theory of photography, enduring art is made directly from nature; the artist’s role is to imitate these effects on the eye” (Hirsch, p. 148). Emerson favored platinum prints and photogravures in order to capture this naturalism. These processes have no obvious post-camera manipulation or retouching which kept them consistent with his style.
In this enlightened age Emerson could clearly see the beauty of art and science joining together and it was his aim to demonstrate the scientific basis of photography. He wanted everything to be seen against something else, to show that truth doesn’t always lie in optical sharpness (Turner, p. 67). Emerson’s photographic technique came from a theory he derived from a number of optical discoveries dealing with the structure and action of the eye made by Hermann von Hemholtz. He believed “that only the central portion of the human field of vision is sharp and that the borders are ‘only roughly sketched in’” (Hirsch, p. 149).
Emerson felt that camera vision was so altered from human vision that in order to capture truthfulness the photograph must be slightly soft except for the main subject. This captured the charm and mystery of nature (Turner, p. 68). It would also ensure that the subject would be no sharper than as seen by the naked eye and that the rest of the images would stay subdued. This technique confused many amateurs who took the instruction out of context and began to replace out of focus for naturalism. Those who still supported the ideals of Robinson called the immature photographs made from these unskilled photographers fuzzygraphs (Hirsch, p. 149).
In order to capture the essence of his early theories he traveled to Norfolk, England to create a series of photographs depicting the workers and the wilds of the region. It was successful because it showcased a part of England that people didn’t see much of anymore: the desolation of peasants who worked the land without any knowledge of city life (Turner, p. 69). The prints were paired with text from Emerson and T.F. Goodall, his guide. “The text described the landscape and documented the disappearing customs of these working rural people, often in their own voice” (Hirsch, p. 148). He released a total of six books on the Norfolk Broads.
The photograph Rowing Home the Schoof-Stuff is from one of these albums labeled Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. Printed in 1886, it was made during the prime of Emerson’s naturalistic movement. The crisp black and white image is almost surreal in its stark simplicity. It depicts a river’s horizon that is interrupted by a man rowing away from the camera toward what the viewer can assume is home.
The “fuzziness” of the photograph is not to be mistaken as out-of-focus. This was part of Emerson’s naturalism, that with our naked eye we would see the rower as slightly blurred, therefore the image must reflect that. This adds to the unintentional surrealism. It seems as if this man is in a dream. The river is too calm, the day too perfect for it to be an actuality. This is what Emerson hoped to capture, that the natural world could be just as artistic as the altered world of Robinson’s group.
The horizon line rests delicately in the top third of the frame, giving more space to the still river. The land and houses that punctuate the skyline keep the perspective of the river, guiding the viewer to the furthest point that can be seen. This gives the rower a destination, a goal to be had, something that the viewer can relate to; going home after a hard day at work.
The land that creates the horizon is fairly dark, separating sky from water. The contrast between the two is so close that without the dark land to separate them the viewer could get lost in deciphering. This equality balances the frame to compensate for the rower in the middle ground. The contrast between the rower and his boat and the river is also quite stark, giving the boat an almost silhouetted feel. There is detail to be seen in the shadows, but overall the viewer sees a dark shape on top of a lighter shape. This objectification of the shape the rower makes emphasizes his role in the photograph. He is the subject. He is the point of the picture.
Showing a working class man doing labor is as natural as it gets. Emerson wanted to show what goes on in the real world and he has captured that and so much more. One could make up a whole life for this man just based on their knowledge of what is shown here. Possibly he’s rowing back to his wife and three kids, one of whom is soon to be married, or he’s rowing back to start his evening shift and won’t make it home for dinner. No matter the story, it is undoubtedly that of a lower class laborer, a mysterious man embodying a societal normalcy.
The mystery of the man lies in his turned head and body. He wears a hat and overcoat, and the only recognizable section of his face is shrouded in deep shadow. This shadow connotes a mood that can only be assumed to be bad. He hunches and cowers within himself. He pushes his boat to who knows where and has however many more trips to make. His backward facing body is representative not only of his return home, but also in the setting of the sun and the dying of the day. It would seem as if his action of turning the oars was powering the sun, and that as he neared the shore and his rowing slowed, that the sun would follow obediently. He doesn’t rush though. He is taking his time, enjoying the life that lay around him. He is encompassed by nature.
Emerson stuck to his theories about naturalism until 1891 when he suddenly publically rescinded his position on the subject. Up until this time he would engage heavily in debates over his theories on naturalism. He sent letters to major magazines of photography begging for the forgiveness of those he had attacked and from his followers. At some point he realized that he had misinterpreted studies of development and of the speed of materials and therefore had not quite grasped the understanding of tonal value he thought he possessed. He recognized now that his thoughts about photographers not being artists were wrong, that the maker could in fact control photography (Hirsch, p.149-150).Emerson didn’t want his photographs to be seen and forgotten, or to be misread, but to be cherished
as a representation of life. His theories on photography, though, later rescinded, created the Naturalism
Movement and propelled photography to a new level. His dedication to the movement and his expert
work showed the English being English, people being people, nature being nature.