Naturalistic Photography

We have not until now discussed the referenced books written by P. H. Emerson Naturalistic Photography in these pages. Suffice it to say there are three editions – the First Edition was quickly replaced by the Second Edition in an effort to better clarify and state the ideals of naturalistic photography. Nine years later Emerson released his Third Edition.

For photographic historians or those with a wont to look under the hood of 1800’s philosophical discussions on the meaning of art & photography, then this evolution is of curious amusement.

The causality of the Third Edition can be read in this paper by Carl Fuldner on “Emerson’s Evolution”:

Between these two editions of Naturalistic Photography we have Dr. Emerson’s Renunciation, published in The British Journal of Photography, January 23, 1891, from a pamphlet delivered them by Emerson. Here reproduced is the renunciation and a single (of many from many others) reply by George Davison, to Emerson’s renunciation, as issued in the pages of The British Journal of Photography. Take this all for what its worth, simply noting that art and photography are under passionate philosophical discussion.

One last note: Certain sentences, as called out, were not reprinted by The Journal, and so have since been lost to history … unless someone can find a copy of Dr. Emerson’s pamphlet.


The British Journal of Photography
No. 1603. Vol, XXXVII. – January 23, 1891
Pg. 54


[Dr. Emerson sends us the following.] 

To all Photographers. 

Loving Brethren that were, I salute you. I owe you one apology oh ! my friends, for in the earnestness of my heart I partly misled you. You, who stuck by me in storm and stress I shall never forget—if any of you, after this renunciation, seek advice, ask and you shall receive of my best. You, enemies, who will now rub your hands with small-souled glee, rub on, till it all ends in imaginary soft-soap. You, whom I have in mistaken zeal attacked, pray forgive and forget. 

And now list. I, saner than ever, renounce and abjure all theories, teachings, and views on art written, and first promulgated by me in sundry works, articles, &c., and finally collected in a volume, entitled Naturalistic Photography. I cast them upon the dust-heap.

I am for the present and future neither idealist, realist, naturalist, nor impressionist— photographic impressionist* indeed!—as though all graphic artists were not impressionists, and as if the photographic process could give aught but transcripts more or less literal. Shall I forsooth explain this burning of books?

* “A term consecrate to Charlatans,” and especially to photographic impostors, pickpockets, parasites, and vanity intoxicated amateurs.

List, you who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

In the fulness of my heart I dreamed a dream. I thought art might be taught by writing. I was wrong, I confess. I, even I, “the lover of nature”—every one is that now—preached that all art that did not conform to “truth to nature” principle was bad; that was a fatal sermon to many. From this followed again the idea—mistaken, alas!—that photography pure (not impure, on rough papers, touched up by clumsy hands) was an art surpassing all black and white methods. Eheu! That this was ever believed! However, I was sincere, enthusiastic, but mistaken, and I was and am no amateur. I have by the sweat of my brow learned, under a master, something of this thing they call art. Being no amateur, I have therefore left the Camera Club, the home of the “ amateur.” But ye reasonable ones in photography — some of you are that, true and worthy sons of the goddess Science, who has little to do with the goddess Art—you will ask, and with right, Why this thusness? I respect you true workers in science—ye Abneys, Dallmeyers, Hurters, Driffields, Vogels, Jones, Harrisons, Bolas, Waterhouses, Eders, and others. I will tell you, for the vulgar mob of pseudo-scientists have done naught but prove their ignorance and show signs of the itch—the itch for publicity and venom. 

To you, then, who seek an explanation for my conduct, Art—as Whistler said—is not nature, is not necessarily the reproduction or translation of it; much, so very much, that is good art, some of the very best, is not nature at all, nor even based upon it— vide Donatello and Hokusai.

The limitations of photography are so great that, though the results may and sometimes do give a certain aesthetic pleasure, the medium must always rank the lowest of all arts, lower than any graphic art, for the individuality of the artist is cramped; in short, it can scarcely show itself. Control of the picture is possible to a slight degree, by varied focussing, by varying the exposure (but this is working in the dark), by development, I doubt (I agree with Hurter and Driffield, after three-and-a-half months’ careful study of the subject), and, lastly, by a certain choice in printing methods.

But the all-vital powers of selection and rejection are fatally limited, bound in by fixed and narrow barriers. No differential analysis can be made, no subduing of parts, save by dodging—no emphasis, save by dodging—and that is not pure photography; impure photography is merely a confession of limitations. A friend once said to me, “I feel like taking nearly every photograph and analyzing it.” Compare a pen and ink drawing by Rico or Vierge, in Pennel’s book. I thought once (Hurter and Driffield have taught me differently) that true values could be obtained and that values could be altered at will by development. They cannot; therefore, to talk of getting the values in any subject whatever as you wish, and of getting them true to nature, is to talk nonsense.

It is impossible, in most subjects, to alter your values as you wish, and to talk of such things now is mere emptiness and puffed-up humbug.

Some amateurs, following Colonel Noverre’s revival of rough printing papers last year (1889), have thought that salvation lay in rough surfaces. Colonel Noverre’s dust-heap was ransacked, and we have heard of a “new departure ”—a newer “school,” and all the bleat of the overweeningly vain “amateur.”

If there can be no scientific basis for an art, as some have asserted, Meissonier can claim to be as artistic as Monet, and Monet as Meissonier. The sharp photographer can assert his artistic rights alongside of the veriest “blottist.” So all opinions and writings upon art are as the crackling of thorns beneath the pot. In short, I throw my lot in with those who say that photography is a very limited art. I regret deeply that I have to come to this conclusion. Photography is first of all the hand-maiden of art and science. It has and will register new facts of light, form, and texture. Pure photography is a scientific method of drawing, and scientists should work on until true and literal scientific transcript of nature can be made—this by orthochromatics, &c.

It will interest some to hear what I think of some points that have been vexed questions in a war I have, I regret to say, stirred up. Composition, as understood by Burnet and others, I hold to be utility itself, though I can appreciate the attempts to meet the difficulties in this matter. The eternal principles of art I have heard so much of are mere catchwords.

Sharpness versus Diffusion.—If the work is for scientific purposes, work sharply; if for amusement, please yourself; if for business, do what will pay. 

I have, I regret it deeply, compared photographs to great works of art, and photographers to great artists. It was rash and thoughtless, and my punishment is in having to acknowledge this now. Think of the marvellous dexterity of the man who with pencil, pen and ink, or paint and brush, produces a masterpiece, the drawing equal to that of the lens, the tones in harmony, the colour delicate and marvellously beautiful. Read Rood’s Chromatics for a hint of the manifold difficulties surrounding this subject. Then think of the amateur photographer, who, if clever, can in a few weeks, turn out good technical work.

It may be asked then what theories on art I have? I answer, at present none. What artists I admire ? I answer, all good artists and all good art. To what school do I now belong? None. What do I think of writings upon art and art criticisms? Mistakes. 

A final word. Suggestions have been made that I get some of my ideas from a book, called Naturalistic Painting. I have a letter in my possession from an artist, wherein is stated clearly and exactly that Mr. Bate* had read a paper of mine on Naturalistic Photography before his article appeared in the Artist. At the Society of Arts, the other day, a paper was read by Mr. Davison * * * * in which my old ideas were freely and impudently handed about and no credit given me. It was whispered about by my enemies that this person had originated some of the ideas of Naturalistic Photography. To enlighten the public, I append a quotation from this letter to me on this point. * * * * He is now welcome to my cast-off clothes if he likes — he or anybody else. It is with deep regret I do this thing, and it is only as a duty to myself. I justify myself by stating that I wrote privately to Mr. Davison, expostulating with him for freely appropriating my ideas, and telling him that if he did not give me full credit at the Society of Arts I should publish a history of the matter, He never replied. He can publish my letter in full if he likes. This was Mr. Davidson’s reply to a letter I wrote to him and others asking them if they minded me thanking them in public for their support. His reply is dated from the Camera Club, December 16, 1889, only a year ago. It is, “I AM GLAD AND PROUD TO BE IDENTIFIED IN ANY WAY WITH NATURALISTIC PHOTOGRAPHY, BECAUSE I BELIEVE IN WHAT I UNDERSTAND IT MORE AND MORE CLEARLY TO BE, BUT I DOUBT VERY MUCH WHETHER ANYTHING I HAVE DONE DESERVES RECOGNITION.”

*This does not imply that Mr. Bate took any ideas from my paper ; on the contrary, I feel sure that his ideas were his own, as were mine.

I sent a copy of Naturalistic Photography some time ago for review to the Editor of the journal of the Society of Arts, and it got bad notice. All the ideas offered the other night were thus offered to the Society previously. Lastly, a special speech, read from a paper by a friend of mine, especially pointing out how I had originated these ideas, was not reported as it was read, the printed report giving altogether a different impression from what the speaker said. Those who heard the original can refer to the speech, as reported in the Journal of the Society of Arts —not Artists, as Mr. J. Pennell has aptly described it. This sort of treatment, which is nothing new to me, may excuse some of my bitterly written invectives.

Finally, Some of my friends to whom I have recently privately communicated my renunciation have wished to know how it came about. Misgivings seized me after conversations with a great artist after the Paris Exhibition ; these were strengthened by the appearance of certain recent researches in psychology, and Hurter and Driffield’s papers ; and, finally, the exhibition of Hokusai’s work and a study of the National Gallery pictures after three-and-a-half months’ solitary study of nature in my house-boat did for me.

P.S.—Will every Secretary of every Photographic Society take four wafers and a sheet of black paper and hide for ever the words “To the Student” in pictures of East Anglian life ?


Having taken some earnest photographers a little way into the Art world, I feel it my duty to say that, when I have fully reconsidered the limited art possiblities of photography and the general philosophy of art, I will write another book; in the meantime, let students avoid all spurious imitations.



In Memory of 























P. H. Emerson. 

[We have indicated with asterisks certain sentences that we do not reprint for obvious reasons. —Ed.]


The British Journal of Photography
No. 1604. Vol. XXXVIII. – January 30, 1891
Pg. 70


There are one or two matters of public interest in Dr. Emerson’s eccentric “Renunciation,” and one or two requiring personal reply, which I should like to refer to briefly. It would be waste of time to take this undignified production too seriously, for it is evidently only the outcome of violent egotism and offended vanity.

First, do not let photographers suppose that Dr. Emerson has the right to claim any originality in regard to naturalistic art. He has merely adapted to photographic methods ideas current amongst certain artists. He is, therefore, neither entitled to claim further recognition than this, nor has he the slightest right or power to order the funeral of naturalism in photography. Secondly, the limitations of photography are not so great as he now, for vindictive purposes, wishes to make out, for the individuality of the worker is freer than he asserts, and he has allowed himself to be misled by an absurd confusion about Messrs. Hurter & Driffield’s experimental results. The power to alter relative values by exposure, development, and other purely photographic means is infinite. Thirdly, if “all writings and opinions upon art are as the crackling of thorns," why does Dr. Emerson return to his vomit in this pamphlet and re-discuss certain art matters? and why, in the name of all that is consistent, does he threaten photographers with another book on art later on? Fourthly, what on earth has “the dexterity” of the man with paint and brush to do with the matter? The photographer’s dexterity as an artist is not a matter of a few weeks; it takes as long as the artists to cultivate. It is a mental training, and the handicraft follows the brain. Fifthly, Dr. Emerson is wise to give up every “school” title and to take to admiring “all good artists and all good art.” It is what every sensible person has always wished to do, and after passing from one violent extreme to another we may hope he will in time reach a reasonable medium. Sixthly, I believe it to be false that any one has claimed novelty in the use of rough papers. All the same, these pictures have spoken and will speak for themselves to those who are less amateurs than Dr. Emerson, who has, “by the sweat of his brow, learned under a master!” Long before Colonel Noverre’s excellent specimens were exhibited, I, and probably many besides, had spoken to Mr. Willis and others about the necessity for such rough-surfaced papers. Seventhly, the fact that Dr. Emerson should have left the Camera Club cannot fail to make that institution more attractive and comfortable to all reasonable and social people. Eighthly, Dr. Emerson’s repudiation of the claims of photography as a means of capable artistic expression is perhaps only natural. In my opinion there is something sadly wanting in most of his photographs, and he himself is probably now finding this out. I trust he is devoting himself to some other pursuit more suited to his abilities—a humorous friend of mine suggests fretwork.

In regard to the personal matter, and what Dr. Emerson calls my “superficial knowledge,” I shall be well pleased to let my photographic pictures speak for themselves, and stand side by side with his, before any competent and unbiased judge. The quotation used from my private letter seems to be to read in refreshing contrast to the rest of the pamphlet. Dr. Emerson was anxious at the time to recognize what I had done for naturalistic photography. I was not, however, particularly anxious to be very closely identified with Dr. Emerson and his violent aggressiveness. A little of the same appearance of modesty would not injure him. The whole of this business appears to have arisen, first, in that I dared in a very appreciative criticism to point out Dr. Emerson’s weakness in respect to treating figures in photographic pictures. In reply to that he wrote: “You are wrong about my figures; they are as yet alone”—a sweet bit of Emersonian modesty. From that time, although treating with me to write for a journal he proposed to start which was to knock everything else endways, he seems to have begun to say hard things about me to others. That I should have ventured to differ from him in respect of the qualities of diffractive photographs caused him further attacks of spleen, and, finally, the fact of my being invited to read a paper at the Society of Arts appears to have upset the whole of his years of study on naturalistic photography, and wrought him up to the pitch of fulminating this mad pamphlet. The letter which he calls an “expostulation,” and to which I sent no reply, was one long violent insult, alternating between threats and wheedling. I simply allowed Dr. Emerson to stew in his own bile. I was too busy to disturb myself with bandying insults. 

As to the unfairness he complains of at the Society of Arts, he does not mention the name of the friend whose speech was misreported. It can hardly have been Mr. Maskell or Mr. Newman, and they were the only speakers who read their speeches. All the reports seem to me to be fairly accurate so far as they go. 

Finally, I do not wish it to be supposed that I do not sympathise with Dr. Emerson in his affliction. There are some grains of sense in the pamphlet, more, indeed, than could be expected from any one even with a good liver after three and a half months’ solitary study in a house-boat during the recent weather. But every reader ought to be cautioned against paying much heed to the outbursts of one who is blown about by every wind of doctrine—now a well-expressed word of a “great painter,” now the influence of a common every-day artist, and now a misunderstanding of a scientific experiment. Give such one three and a half months' further confinement in a house-boat, and a fresh quarrel and a new crop of theories or burning thereof may be expected. It is certainly to be hoped that no photographer who is working out his own salvation by serious study and practice will be deluded by such cheap trash as this pamphlet contains. Let Dr. Emerson cast all the copies of Naturalistic Photography upon the dust-heap ; let him, as I think, wisely, succeed in covering up the crude and absurd directions “To the Student” in every one of the volumes of East Anglian Life, which, with his genius for advertising himself expensively, Dr. Emerson sowed broadcast over the country—let him do all this and go on “renouncing” to the crack of doom, and he will only publish his own vanity, and will not be able to stem the tide of advancing culture amongst photographers.

George Davison

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