Truth and Beauty Explores the Photographs of Nineteenth-Century British Photographer Peter Henry Emerson

For Immediate Release

January 21, 2000

"By photography can be expressed more truthfully and beautifully the beauties of nature than by any other black and white process." So said British photographer Peter Henry Emerson, (1856-1936) who devoted himself to the development and acceptance of photography as a high art in the late Victorian era and influenced the art world for years to come.

Emerson's 1886 portfolio documenting rural East Anglia combined naturalism with art. Fifteen prints from this portfolio are presented in Truth and Beauty: Peter Henry Emerson's Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute from February 13 to April 23, 2000. "In his most important book, Life and Landscapes on the Norfolk Broads, Emerson not only documented rural life in East Anglia but succeeded in making some of the most beautiful photographs of rural life and landscape in the nineteenth century," says James A. Ganz, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Clark.

Raised in Britain, Peter Henry Emerson was an avid scholar who began his career in the field of medicine. His interest in ornithology led him to study photography as a useful tool for precisely documenting birds. As his enthusiasm for the photographic medium developed, he familiarized himself with the history of art as well. He deeply admired naturalism, a movement that attempted to mirror nature with art, and concluded that photography was a critical meeting place of science and art.

Photography, he believed, could record the essence of nature and thus achieve a new kind of artistic truth. Truth and Beauty draws from Emerson's portfolio Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, which was a collaborative effort with painter Thomas F. Goodall. The book included both photographs and sketches of the East Anglian landscape and its people. East Anglia, where the Norfolk Broads are located, is a part of England that is characterized by networks of waterways, dykes, and marshes. In Emerson's time it was a feudal region controlled by wealthy landowners and occupied by poor farm laborers, fishermen, poachers and peasants. Although Emerson was critical of the conditions under which these people lived, he also believed in the sanctity of the rural social order.

With his photography, he strove to document a way of life that was rapidly changing and would soon disappear. The collection was published in 1886, a time when "high pictorialism" prevailed as the popular photographic style in England. Pictorialists strove to mimic paintings with their photos by posing subjects in highly contrived, often excessively sentimental ways. Emerson's photos, on the other hand, were direct, honest representations of the landscape and its inhabitants. Though his images may strike us today as romanticized, in their time they spoke of real life with unprecedented honesty and clarity.

The photographs in this exhibition are from the collections of the Parnassus Foundation and Jane and Raphael Bernstein. The exhibition will open with a Valentine's Day party on Saturday, February 12, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 ($20 for members). For more information or reservations, call 413-458-2303, extension 505. Also opening February 13 is "A Fresh and Large Assortment": American Silver from the Burrows Collection (through April 30), exploring the use of silver in Colonial America, and Those Women: Toulouse-Lautrec's Elles and French Images of Prostitution (through April 23).

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  The galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free through May.  For more information call 413-458-2303 or visit www.clarkart.edu.

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