I decided to visit Nottingham Castle for an exhibition based on the work by a photographer who’s philosophies on landscape photography had often left me curious to find out more but who’s work I had seen little of. The photographer’s name was P. H. Emerson and I was definitely glad I took the time to go there as I came back with some interesting food for thought, as well as seeing for myself, his intriguing pictorial work.
There were several key points I came away with from the visit and the first consisted of:
The level of detail and care he invested into the printing process was quite an eye-opener for me; considering how little I had in the past but could envisage doing more of in the future, with regards to my own (digital) printing. He chose a photographic printing process called ‘Photogravure’, ‘for its subtlety and delicacy’ and refrained from retouching any of his original negatives. This was presumably a way of staying as close as possible to the Nature from which these photographs were taken from/were a part of (in his eyes at least). Yet, photography is arguably an untruthful rendition of Nature anyway; being a depiction of a past reality. Maybe Emerson saw photographs as being just as natural to Nature as a painting or even more so and this was reflected in the pictorial nature and processes behind his photographs?
This brings me onto the second key point; the exhibition made me think hard about which elements of a painting and photograph were similar/dissimilar. Similar factors included both being (usually) depictions of reality – although one (photographs) were an actual past reality, while paintings can ‘remember’ or make an interpretation of the past and make an often accurate rendition of it (though arguably not as accurate a rendition as a photograph. Alternatively, paintings can imagine a future or represent the immediate present. Even more so (this is one of the dissimilarities), paintings can be whatever the artist wants them to be – comparatively easily to photographs. Yet, curiously they tend to follow traits from real life, perhaps to familiarise the viewer. Often, as was the case with Emerson’s work, landscape photographs tend to follow painterly conventions and thereby mimic paintings, which themselves tend to mimic Nature. In this sense, paintings could be seen to be Nature’s mirror, while photographs could be seen to be Nature’s memories. Nature always comes first, followed by either its mirror or memories but these mirrors or memories are viewed again in a form of Nature’s present reality and I have come to realise this ‘second Nature’ is what interests me most. It seems almost like you, the viewer are in a ‘virtual reality bubble’, when viewing the mirror or memory and so the order of Nature, its representations and how this fits in with reality really intrigued me. Also, because of this ‘virtual reality bubble’, Nature for a moment at least comes second to this ‘memory’. Lastly, there was an interesting paradox, where paintings or Nature’s mirror obviously came before photographs historically but photographs, with the analogy of them being Nature’s memories implies something of the past, like they came before. Although I would say paintings and photographs are two quite different mediums, it could be interesting to see how the two related because of this paradox.
As a side note, where photographs were finite and even their negatives destroyed sometimes by the likes of Emerson for the sake of limited edition prints, now I believe (digital) photographs have at least the potential to last a very long time comparatively and some might say indefinitely. However, it is arguable that his prints, coming when they did historically, were more important than a lot made today and yet he himself manually destroyed them.
Also after the exhibition, I became interested in the pictorial process and history and so looked up about both. One practical technique I came across in creating a pictorial effect was the Orton effect, which involves ‘sandwiching two or three transparencies of the same composition together’ (Orton, 2012) to create a composite photograph, where one frame is in focus and the other is out of focus but both are overexposed. This then creates a painterly effect when superimposed over each other. This was a technique I could definitely try out feasibly and because the in focus frame’s in focus area could be manually selected by using a large aperture and then combining that frame with the out of focus frame, I could see similarities between this technique and Emerson’s selective focusing, where he paid careful attention to the point and plane of focus in order to create the ’selective focus’ method. In detail, this was where ‘The principal object in the picture must be […] just as sharp as the eyes see it, and no sharper, but everything else […] must be subdued’.
I also looked up the history of pictorialism and especially the Linked Ring. I was surprised to see how much disparity there was within the Linked Ring, whether they were aware of it at the time. I disagreed with Demachy, when he argued that photographs should always be seen to be interfered with or: ‘in all the best paintings you can see that the artist intervened between commonplace reality and the final work’ – (visual-arts-cork.com., n.d.); available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/photography/pictorialism.htm#postmodernism. I would counter this with the argument that it is also up to the photographer to choose when and how to photograph a certain scene; similar to Evans’ argument of straighter photography but not quite consistent. Here, Evans made the point that two photographs would appear differently even when taken from the same exact viewpoint by two different photographers, because of composition and lighting factors. I agree with this but would argue that also the concept in the photographer’s minds would vary based upon how they thought about the scene and how they approached photography.
However, I concurred with Demachy’s ultimate vision for pictorial photography, more so than Evans’, where he stated that pictorialism was intended to break away from recording. It would be a valid point in my opinion, that photographs can’t accurately record nature anyway so for me it makes more sense to accept this and try to use this ‘limitation’ to the photographer’s advantage. I liked Evans’ approach, where it seemed he used a kind of photographic vision, where he may have envisaged how a photograph would turn out before he had taken the photograph or: ‘Evans believed that seeing was the most important single aspect in photography’ – (visual-arts-cork.com., n.d.); available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/photography/pictorialism.htm#postmodernism. However, he used no processing and I believe by processing a photograph, it could potentially allow a photographer to reach a photographic vision, where the resultant image was given extra meaning than what was before the camera. This would be, when a photographer utilised both the way of seeing that Evans’ prescribed, as well as introducing concepts like people in landscapes etc. and using processing to realise these concepts naturally.
Emerson, P.H. (2016). P.H. Emerson: Presented by the Author. [Exhibition] 21 Nov. 2015 – 7th Feb. 2016. Nottingham Castle, Nottingham.
Orton, M. (2012). Orton Effect. [Online] Available at: http://www.michaelortonphotography.com/ortoneffect.html [Accessed 15 Feb. 2016].
visual-arts-cork.com (n.d.) Pictorialism. [Online] Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/photography/pictorialism.htm [Accessed 15 Feb. 2016].