Research/Enquiry- Peter Henry Emerson

Fig 1. P. Emerson. Gathering Water Lilies… 1886

Emerson was a British pioneer of documentary photography during the 19th and 20th century.  He began photographing the fisherman culture and soon came to the realisation that photography could be used in an artistic sense.  Emerson was accustomed to photographing reality as it was, capturing simplistic images of the English rural culture.  Emerson also published various books including ‘Pictures of East Anglian Life’ in 1888 which featured his collection of works.

The image ‘Gathering Water Lilies’ is one photograph in particular that I find rather touching. The photograph presents a tranquil scene of two men rowing a boat in a calm lake as one of the men reaches down to pick a waterlily from floating among the surface.  I find the scene gives an enchanting atmosphere and it gives a strong tribute to traditional ways.  I strongly admire the composition for this photograph and the stillness of the scene (including elements such as the water) brings a tone that is relaxed and refreshing.  Emerson brings a welcoming honesty to his photographs that reveal the true country life in which the audience is given insight into the everyday routines of the individual subject.  Emerson presents distinct tonal contrast in the lighting of his imagery and usually captures moments of people carrying out work activities.  I feel what is special about this particular image (Fig 1) is that Emerson has captured a moment that may not necessarily involve work which suggests to the viewer how the place is meaningful to the individual.

Emerson immerses us into the scene in which he depicts ordinary life simply as it is.  Furthermore to this, Emerson is not afraid to reveal what people really do in their environment and this gives more background as to what certain lifestyles were like during this time period.  I find Emerson’s work fascinating in a historical sense and are also preserving as the audience is able to learn of an older culture.

I find this influential towards my working practice as I find Emerson presents worthy examples that represent real life.  Although my practice currently focuses on staged photography, I am also intrigued by documentary storytelling and I would like to experiment more in documentary practices.  It would also be interesting to approach narrative in a way that reveals more about culture in relation to places and the individual as I feel this is another aspect that reveals why the individual is intimately connected with their  surroundings.


Museum of Modern Art (2016) Peter Henry Emerson [Online] Available from: (Accessed 03/01/2016)


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