Photographer who captured a rural way of life in the Broads that has obviously changed but still has resonances today
National Media Museum: Emerson
Emerson captured this image of traditional reed gathering during his travels around the Broads
Peter Henry Emerson was born in Cuba, the son of a wealthy sugar plantation owner. After moving to Britain while he was in his teens, he went on to study medicine at Cambridge University.
He gave up practising medicine in the 1880s to follow his passion for photography. He spent much of the next decade, from 1885 to 1895, documenting rural life in the Norfolk Broads.
Pictures of East Anglian life
An exhibition by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford put together a retrospective of Emerson’s work in 2007.
The Old Order And The New: PH Emerson And Photography 1885-1895. The exhibition was also featured at the Getty Center [sic] in California.
Influenced by the 19th century Norwich School of painters, Emerson’s naturalistic pictures document people going about their traditional way of life in the Broads - he photographed people reed gathering, shooting and fishing and spent long periods living on a boat while searching out his subjects.
He believed the old ways were under threat from industrialisation and saw himself as a documentary photographer - rather than a promoter of tourism - although his images were widely circulated and did help put the Norfolk Broads on the map as a visitor location.
Cutting edge technology
One of Emerson’s best-known photos is Gathering Water-Lilies (1886) which he sold as a photogravure print (then an experimental new technique) ahead of the publication of his book, Life And Landscape On The Norfolk Broads.
Often travelling the Broads with painter Thomas Frederick Goodall, Emerson went on to produce a series of photographic books about East Anglia including:
- Pictures From Life In Field And Fen (1887)
- Pictures Of East Anglian Life ((1888
- Wild Life On A Tidal Water (1890).
His last great photographic book was Marsh Leaves, published in 1895. He later took up writing detective stories.