Emerson and the beauty of ‘Marsh Leaves’

Peter Henry Emerson, ‘Rime Crystals’, photogravure, 1895

The beauty of the place was infinite and heartbreaking. Emerson, in love with the landscape, overlooked nothing, from winter’s mists to summer’s fullness. Yet such opulence was beyond the scope of photography and, eventually realizing this, Emerson had to content himself with exquisite miniature pictures of frozen earth, mists and far horizons – winter landscape, which suited photography’s monochromatic limitations. His last illustrated book, ‘Marsh Leaves’ (1895), contains sixteen of photography’s most reticent pictures, tiny photo-etchings of a remote grey world punctuated by thorn trees and wasted reeds. These resemble nothing so much as souvenirs, fragile mementos impressed on paper.

To do full justice to such opulence and variety as he found in the Norfolk Broads Emerson had to rely on words, which eventually made up for everything the camera had promised and failed to deliver. Emerson was no ordinary writer, although he could be longwinded and apocalyptic when goaded by modern enormities. Guided by naturalistic precepts he wrote, when in control of himself, as a recorder, describing landscape and transcribing local speech. … At other times his reporting is anything but objective. He felt acutely for landcape as a living thing, stirred by the springtime, purified by fire, flayed by the wind, smothered and killed by winter. Some of his descriptions of this animated world read like word pictures of agile expressionist landscapes. Naturalist objectivity was at odds with a powerful subjective sense likely to dramatize anything which came its way. Why, in this case, did Emerson trouble to photograph at all? Because the camera, with its sparing depictions, placed some control on an imagination which threatened to run wild.

Ian Jeffrey in ‘Photography: A Concise History’, T & H, 1989, p.69, 70.
In memory of being overwhelmed by Emerson’s pictures at the Musée d’Orsay, August 2010.

Back to the beginning with Fox Talbot

W. H. Fox Talbot’s 1835 negative and positive photographs ‘Latticed Window, Lacock Abbey’

A photographic image is true and false in equal measure.

(Quote from Gerry Badger in The Genius of Photography, p.8). The earliest days of photography don’t bring any ideological foundation to its trajectory through history. The one thing you can’t do with a consideration of photography’s story is to call it The Story of Photography. Even in the 1830s, it was postmodern. There are, as Gerry Badger has pointed out, many stories of photography, and it proves impossible to ask them to form a neat line. As Fox Talbot so aptly showed in The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), even when you ask photographic images to show us what they can do, the multiplicity of the ‘picture-ness’ itself defies a confining logic.

Talbot’s book is a series of commentary on 24 photographs (all originally unique calotypes), produced in instalments over two years. Architectural scenes, still life, copies of drawing and print, the textures of manmade and natural objects: an eclectic choice of subjects are all accompanied by short texts of description or reflection on the image-capture process. Ian Jeffrey has noted the uncertainty in this presentation of ‘the new Art’ (Talbot’s term used in his introductory outline of the process at the beginning of The Pencil of Nature), suggestive of the surprise at being made ‘acutely alert to seeing itself’ (p.26, Photography: A Concise History, 1989).

Fox Talbot remarks on the camera’s ability to see everything ‘all at once’ (after Plate III, Articles of China), to ‘introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation’, being found to ‘give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented’ (after Plate X, The Haystack), to ‘awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings’ (after Plate VI, The Open Door), to produce copies of any number of artefacts which ‘may be preserved from loss, and multiplied to any extent’ (after Plate XXIII, Hagar in the Desert), ‘as much larger or smaller than the originals as we may desire’ (after Plate XI, Copy of a Lithographic Print). He even muses on the possibility of the photographic image making visible the invisible, by virtue of fixing ultraviolet rays (after Plate VIII, A Scene in A Library).

Each of these, and others besides, act not only to endorse the polyvalence of a photograph’s possible meaning, but also to present the paradox of photography: we both see the subject as immediate, as a short-circuit to visual reality AND we inhabit the interpretative process which is always invested in a picture, undermining such objectivity. Like Talbot’s first negative of 1835, above, this reveals that perceptive flip of comprehension, where the impossibility of operating in two modes at the same time is brought tantalisingly close. Close enough to explode the dominance of all previous means of representation.