Poling the Marsh Hay

Peter Henry Emerson British, born Cuba

Not on view

P. H. Emerson's book "Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads," in which this image was one of forty plates, was the artist's first demonstration of the naturalism that he advocated for photography. While seeking the same goal as his ideological opposite, H. P. Robinson--recognition of photography as a fine art--Emerson drew his subjects not from literary narratives, but rather from an examination, at once both highly personal and anthropological, of the environment and daily rituals of rural life in East Anglia, the marshy coastal region northeast of London. Adamantly, even vociferously, opposed to Robinson's artificial manipulation of the medium, Emerson admitted into his own photographic vocabulary only selective focus and the careful gradation of tones, subtly rendered here by the platinum process. He looked to the work of painters for his aesthetic models, Jean-François Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage in France and, at home, the painters of the New English Art Club, including his collaborator on "Life and Landscape," Thomas Goodall. In breaking the existing molds of ambitious photography--sharp, straightforward documentation and contrived tableaux--and opting for a more impressionist vision, Emerson blazed the trail that would be followed by the American Pictorialists, the Photo-Secession, and modern photography.
Emerson immersed himself in the life and work of East Anglia, passing on his expertise in more than a half-dozen books illustrated with platinum prints or photogravures during his ten-year photographic career. But "Poling the Marsh Hay" is more than just an accurate depiction of the means by which Norfolk peasants transported their harvest over ground too sodden to traverse with carts; it is an essay on the nobility of manual labor and a meditation on nature and mortality. Below ominous dark clouds the assertive strong-bodied woman in the foreground and the shadowed figure behind pole their hay as if carrying a funeral litter.

Poling the Marsh Hay, Peter Henry Emerson (British (born Cuba), 1856–1936), Platinum print from glass negative

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