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Sunday, 17 February 2008


Finally some sensible advice! At some point we should stop comparing lenses, films, developers, for the sharpness and grain, or lack thereof, they afford, but instead concentrate on the study of tone.

Just comparing the resulting tones from Tri-X in its 320 and 400 incarnation should be enough to enlighten a few people.

THANK YOU so much for making this information about Emerson available. He is truly one of the great masters. THANK YOU.

Thank you for this article. I really enjoy TOP when the discussion leads to picture making. I would not be surprised to learn that a lot of folks that read TOP have never heard of Emerson. I would like it if Mike would introduce the readers to other pictorialists such as J.Ortiz Echague and Leonard Misonne just to name two. With these two, tone was everything. E

Hahahaha! Sadly for those of us unencumbered with artistic knowledge yet apt to post our photographs on Flickr, we've already blissfully blown off the part where the author cautions "We strongly advise him to give away no prints of early work, or he will most surely rue the day when he did so."

"Shoot first. Ask questions later." That's the new mantra of modern photography.

Despite owning a Canon 5D and L lenses, I regularly enjoy shooting film for the discipline it forces upon me to think about the photo before I shoot.

Emerson's advice, while good and proper, is so out of place in the modern world of digital photography, unfortunately.

Craig Norris

thanks for the tips!

All well and good, but what burst speed should you use?

In truth, I find this to be quaintly amusing in its writing style, but of only modest more worth. Elevating tone to uber-status is just as obsessive and nonsensical as elevating sharpness, or grainlessness, or rules of composition. I recommend a reread of this column :

It is true that rarely will you have a good photo that doesn't exhibit Emersonian sensibilities (although there are exceptions), but rarely will you have a good photo that is fuzzy, overbearingly noisy, egregiously poor in design, or filled with nothing but banal subject matter (and again, there is a notable minority that are exceptions).

The ultimate extension of this particular *fetish* are the Orthodox Zonies. Formality triumphs over substance.

There is no magic button that leads to good photographs; I see this as simply another poulet d'amour (pardon my French [grin]). Oft useful advice, but not close to holy.

pax / Ctein

I go two ways on this myself. On the one hand it made me smile because it's so obviously a forerunner of the "guru" approach to teaching photography--or dictating it. He's almost the prototype of the guru/geek. And obviously the thought of blocking out pictures in charcoal before taking them...well, that had to be highly impractical advice even then, unless maybe a photographer could only afford to expose a very few plates every week.

Still and all, I bet if even digital photographers took his advice and tried to photograph the black dress, the white flowers against white paper, etc., etc.--at least if they'd never done anything similar with film--I bet they'd learn a few things. Obviously some photographers are past that, but I'll bet there are a lot more who aren't, and would benefit from it. I did a lot of that sort of thing with film when I was starting to get serious, and I learned a lot from it.

Mike J.

BTW I chose the passage more or less at random, just to give a taste of Emerson's style and subject matter. I did actually read one of his books once, but it was a long time ago. I saw a lot of Emerson's original prints at the Library of Congress; he was indeed a fine craftsman within his chosen style, especially given their incomplete knowledge of technique in those early days.

Dear Mike,

Don't get me wrong. I like Emerson's work. Even more importantly, I admire it, for much the reasons you mention. I think the example photo you posted is seriously wonderful. Mostly, as it happens, for purely compositional rather than tonal reasons-- the almost yin-yang anti-symmetry of it, broken in interesting and complex ways, makes it photo of worthy of much and extended attention, to my taste.

Tone is, of course, the brush that draw the composition, but I'd like this photo rendered with any of a wide variety of tonal placements. Let's face it, the guy was GOOD.

I think it was the implications of guru-hood that I was, indeed, reacting to.

pax / Ctein

What a stunning photograph!

Emerson's writing conveys a pedantic tone which is likely a reflection of the era in which he lived. His images, however, project a distinct sense of timelessness.

It's an assignment for students of photography, not the 10 commandments.

And by the way, there are no such things as DSLR zombies. No digital camera currently available has mind control mode. Any weakness or flaw in technique is purely the responsibility of the photographer. If the gear is to be blamed for poor results, then it should get the credit when results are good.

"If I knew how to take a good photograph, I'd do it every time." -Robert Doisneau

Thanks, Mike. I am reminded of a favorite photography book: P. H. Emerson by Nancy Newhall, An Aperture Monograph, published in 1975. There are copies available at abebooks.com

For a lot more photo's and stuff on Emerson, just
google--"Peter Henry Emerson" in images.

Didn't Emerson once write, after the Naturalistic Photography book was published, that he had been wrong in saying that photography was art and that he had decided that it was in fact not art?

"Didn't Emerson once write, after the Naturalistic Photography book was published, that he had been wrong in saying that photography was art and that he had decided that it was in fact not art?"

Yes, in an 1891 pamphlet he published called "The Death of Naturalistic Photography." The pamphlet had a black border like a death notice.

Mike J.

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