With his gentle images of English rustic life, Peter Henry Emerson hardly seems like an artist in the midst of a major art-world debate. Yet the young woman peeling potatoes, the fields and fens, the seaside sunsets are his gauntlets thrown down in black and white.
Emerson took the photos in the 1880s, when photography was young. Nervous about industrialization in England, he was spending time in East Anglia to document the country living he thought was on the way out. He was also making a point with his elegant yet naturalistic compositions, many of which are now on exhibit at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center: Photography is fine art.
This assertion was startling to 19th-century people who thought of photography as a mechanical novelty, simply capturing the world without artistic sensibility. When Emerson stood up in front of the Photographic Society in London in 1886 and gave a talk called "Photography as a Pictorial Art," his words reverberated.
The debate would certainly not end when the century did. Little did Emerson (1856-1936) know that he was joining an argument that would flourish for decades. Even in the ancient year of 2012, the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. ran a story headlined "Photography: is it art?"
As recently as the 1960s and '70s, the Guardian noted, "art photography the idea that photographs could capture more than just surface appearances was, in the words of the photographer Jeff Wall, a "photo ghetto" of niche galleries, aficionados and publications." (By 2011, photography's defenders were presumably vindicated by the sale of an Andreas Gursky photo for 2.7 million pounds, the Guardian added.)
In visiting the Cantor, museum-goers can decide for themselves whether photography is fine art, at least where Emerson is concerned. The small exhibition on the museum's second floor, called "The Honest Landscape," contains several platinum prints and photogravures. A glass case holds copies of the artist's limited-edition books of his photos and writings.
One book, the 1889 "Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art," was both praised and reviled for its instructional advice to students, which sometimes took the form of criticism of photographers he disliked. Emerson took these fellow shooters to task for staging compositions, retouching negatives or other manipulations.
Emerson would raise such critiques again and again. A former doctor who left his medical practice in 1886 to pursue photography and writing, Emerson would go on to preach a doctrine of naturalism. The camera should see what the human eye sees, he said.
"Achieving a faithful impression satisfied his belief that nature was the scientific first principle of art," writer John Fuller wrote in an Oxford University Press article about Emerson that is posted on the Museum of Modern Art's website.
Indeed, the photos at the Cantor do feel like perfectly natural windows into the 19th-century English countryside. In the 1887 photogravure "Young Woman Peeling Potatoes," a woman in an apron sits slightly off-center, a dirt path curving away behind her. Many have said Emerson's photos of people call to mind the peasants portrayed in French realism. "On Moonlit River" from 1893 feels almost like a casual snapshot in its tangle of trees and reflections on the water.
"On Moonlit River" is also an example of Emerson's views on focusing. He preferred to carefully frame rather than retouch, focusing his lens on his primary subject to leave the rest of the photo softer, almost faded. He called his practice "'differential focusing,' which, supposedly, would give effects similar to human vision," Fuller wrote.
In Emerson's writings that accompanied his photography, he was often detailed about the lives of the people he encountered in East Anglia. Fishing and farming practices fascinated him.
For all Emerson's artistic passion, his career was short. After his heyday in the 1880s, he published his last East Anglia book in 1895 and almost entirely gave up photography by 1900.
And his career as a defender of the artistic merits of photography? Even shorter. In 1891, Emerson announced that he had changed his mind. He published a pamphlet called "The Death of Naturalistic Photography" in which he now renounced photography as fine art.
The flip-flop may have come from Emerson's falling in with a different crowd. Rumor has it that the painter James McNeill Whistler, no fan of photography, swayed him to change his mind.
In addition, Emerson had become taken with Japanese artists such as the printmaker Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Simplified visual forms began to show up in Emerson's photography, reflecting the Japanese influence.
The 1895 photogravure "Marsh Weeds" is an example. The spare image of an open white field has a dim treeline in the back, but the eye is drawn to the small, meticulous black lines of the weeds in the snowy foreground, standing out like calligraphy.
"The high level of artistic craftsmanship Emerson found in Japanese prints contributed to his eventual conviction that a photograph is not art, but merely a mechanical recording," the exhibit card reads.
Debate, it seems, springs eternal.
Info: "The Honest Landscape: Photographs by Peter Henry Emerson" is at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University through May 4. Admission is free, and the museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8. Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.