A Thomas Smillie  cyanotypes of specimens on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, 1890.  Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution Archives

P. H. Emerson: from the Introduction to “Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art”

At a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences held in Paris on the 19th day of August, 1839, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, in the presence of the flower of Parisian Academy, art, literature and science, gave a demonstration of his new discovery the Daguerreotype. The success of the séance was complete, and the gathering of illustrious men was intoxicated with enthusiasm. . . . Let us see what this cool young goddess, born of art and science, who generally comes to stay and finally to oust the old goddesses from their temples, has been doing these fifty years….

Photographs of the Transit of Venus in 1882 were made by scientists around the world.  This is one of the 147 surviving glass plate negatives by David Peck Todd taken at the future site of the Lick Obsevatory in California.
Photographs of the Transit of Venus in 1882 were made by scientists around the world. This is one of the 147 surviving glass plate negatives made by David Peck Todd at the future site of the Lick Obsevatory in California.

In the fields of science, she has been most busy. She has been giving us photographs of the moon, the stars, and even of the nebula. She has recorded eclipses and a transit of Venus for us. She has drawn too the Sun’s corona, and registered those great volcanic explosions which playfully take place there periodically. She has shown us that there are stars which no telescope can find, and she has in another form registered for us the composition of the sun and many of the stars; and now she is busy mapping out the heavens. Like an all powerful goddess, she plays with the planets and records on our plates, with delicate taps, the stars. She runs through the vast space of the kosmos doing our biddings with a precision and delicacy never equaled—in short she is fast becoming the right hand of the astronomer.

Not content with her vast triumphs in space over the infinitely great, she dives down to the infinitely small, and stores up for us portraits of the disease-bearing generation of Schizomycetes, the stiff-necked bacteria, and the wriggling vibrio, the rolling microccus, and the fungoid actinomycosis—with deadly tresses; these she pictures for us, so that we may be either keep them on small plates, or else she throws them on large screens so that we are enabled to study their structure. On these screens too we can gaze on the structure of the Proteus-like white blood corpuscle, and we are able to study the very cells of our tongues, our eyes, our bones, our teeth, our hairs, and to keep drawing of them such as man never had before. So the kindly bright goddess stints us in nothing, for wherever the microscope leads there will she be found at our bidding. The greatness of an all-seeing mind, it matters not to her whether she draws the protococcus or the blood-cells of an elephant, whether she depicts the eroding cancer cell or the golden scale on the butterfly’s wing—anything that we ask of her she does; if we will but be patient.

But the little goddess, the light-bearer, is not content with these sciences but she must needs go and woo chemistry and register the belted zones of the spectrum and tell us the mysterious secrets of the composition of matter.

An 1882 image by William N. Jennings, who is credited as the first person to photograph lightning.  Courtesy: Wikipedia
An 1882 image by William N. Jennings, who is credited as the first person to photograph lightning. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Meteorology, too, has claimed her, and she draws for the meteorologist the frowning nimbus and the bright rolling cumulus. She scratches quickly on his plate the lightning’s flash, and even measures the risings and fallings of the mercuries in his long glass barometers and thin-stemmed thermometers, so that the meteorologist can go and rest in the sun; and good-naturedly, too, she hints to him that his registerings are but fumblings after her precise and delicate work. This versatile little goddess, too, is playing with and hinting to the surveyors how she will not be coy if they will but woo her, for, says she, “have I not already shown you how to measure the altitude of mountains, and how to project maps with my aid?”

A Thomas Smillie  cyanotypes of specimens on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, 1890.  Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Thomas Smillie cyanotype of specimens on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, 1890. Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution Archives

The geographer, too, is another lover well favoured by the dainty goddess, he always takes her on his travels now-a-days, and brings us back her inimitable drawings of sculls, savages, weapons, waterfalls, geological strata, fossils, animals, birds, trees, landscapes, and men, and we believe him when we know the light-bearer was with him, and soon in all his geographies, in all his botanies, in all his zoologies, in all his geologies, his entomologies, and all the rest of his valuable ‘ologies,” we shall find the crisp and inimitable drawings of his dainty companion.

Southworth & Hawes,  Early Operation Using Ether for Anesthesia, 1847, daguerreotype, courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Southworth & Hawes,
Early Operation Using Ether for Anesthesia, 1847, daguerreotype,
courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The horny-handed engineer, too, is wooding her; he makes love to her away down in dark caissons half-buried in river beds; whilst above-ground she scatters his plans far and wide…. The earnest doctor and the curious biologist are amongst her lovers, and the dainty one does not disdain their work, for she knows it to be good; for though she is fickle, she is kind at heart. For them she goes into the mysterious tumour-deformed leg, the tossing epileptic, the deformed leprous body, the ulcerous scalp, the unsightly skin disease, the dead brain, the delicate dissection, the galloping horse, the flying gull, and erring man does she with quick and dainty strokes draw and give her lovers the physician and biologist.

Incredible indeed seems the all-pervading power of this light-baring goddess. Next to printing, photography is the greatest weapon given to making for his intellectual advancement.

Peter Henry Emerson (1856 – 1936), who lived and trained as a doctor in Britain,  left his surgical practice to become a photographer.  In his work and writing he explored the nature of seeing, its representation in photography, and was a staunch proponent of the medium as an art form.  Emerson’s  publications include:  Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1886); Pictures from Life in Field and Fen (1887); Pictures of East Anglian Life (1888), and Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889).