P.H. Emerson. MARSH LEAVES. David Nutt, London, 1895.
Current Selling Prices
As I live in East Anglia and occasionally scout the remaining bookshops I am always on the lookout for photobooks by P.H. Emerson (1856 - 1935). He is something of a local hero and his 'bootiful' photos of the Norfolk broads in the Victorian era are still well known in the area and often exhibited. They even had a show at the Getty in Malibu recently.
I have turned up about half a dozen of his books in 20 years (not all in Norfolk and Suffolk) and only one was asleep (i.e. not priced by someone who knew what it was.) Three of them have been 'Marsh Leaves'. I described the last one that came through (2005) thus:
"Large tall 8vo. (11.25 inches x 7. 50 inches). pp vi,  165.Original publisher's decorative light blue cloth. Illustrated with 'sixteen photo-etchings from plates taken by the author.' Major photobook with 60 short prose pieces and 16 photos both by Emerson, as Martin Parr says 'as a fusion of text and imagery it is entirely successful.' Covers somewhat worn and soiled with some staining at front top and corner, spine browned and a little mottled, spine ends sl frayed; sound vg- with clean text and photos in excellent state. It is said 300 copies were printed."It sold quite quickly to the States at £1600. Our copy was a variant, the copy above with leather spine and white decorated boards is preferred. The book, and several other Emersons, is covered by the magisterial Martin Parr in 'The Photobook: A History 1.' He writes of Emerson's affinity with Whistler:
"...the mood, if anything is much bleaker than Whistler's. 'The expression of a landscape is as mutable and as fleeting as the flash in a woman's eye,' Emerson writes in the book's text, but it is a cold and distant woman indeed that he embraces in Marsh Leaves. Most of the images are minimalist to the point of nothingness - a distant tree or boat, the smudge of a distant shoreline...most were taken during winter or on damp, misty mornings. It is one of the most beautiful books about isolation and solitude, perhaps death, ever made, and Emerson's spare evocative pictures were seldom equalled by the later Pictorialists.'
VALUE? A copy in used condition sold for £1950 at Key's auctions (Norfolk) last year, a framed up set of the 16 photos made $14000 in California and at photo-mad auction house Swann Galleries in NY an impressive $19,200 was achieved this year, for a vellum copy described thus:
"...Illustrated with 16 photogravures after Emerson's atmospheric and proto-modernist photographs, with the original printed tissue guards. Tall 4to, morocco-backed pictorial cloth, rebacked; offsetting and discoloring on free endpaper, small gouge on rear pastedown; bookplate. deluxe edition, one of 50 copies on japanese vellum of a planned edition of 100."
Basically decent regular copies now command north of $5000, special copies $10K+. An inscribed 'Marsh Leaves' made $2000 in 1977 during the first boom in photo books. Condition is paramount and they are seldom limpid. I swapped a decent one with the late, much missed David Ferrow of Yarmouth for a car full of books in the mid 1990s, about two grand's worth. He had customers waiting - said to be well off Norfolk farmers.
Top price for any Emerson is this year at Swann - $84,000 for his 1886 'Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads' - 'Illustrated with Forty Beautiful Plates from Nature Executed in Platinotype.' It was helped by being one of 25 copies. Even the regular edition is a beautiful and sumptuous object and a stunning technical achievement. I have seen it in auction but, sadly, never owned one. A decent, complete copy had not been seen in the rooms since the late 1970s when it made $25K. The book, a definite break with the then current 'faux painterly' style, was reviewed at the time as "...an unanswerable refutation of those who say there is no art in photography." Ironically Emerson came to the conclusion that photography was not, and could never be, art and in 1890 published a pamphlet entitled 'The Death of Naturalistic Photography' in which he gave his reasons for this volte face. He never used the word 'art' again in relation to photography. In 2007 this may seem quaint but there are still those who support him. My own view is that it is an art, but Emerson (and possibly Thomas Frederick Goodall - his partner in some of the photos) is one of the few photographers who can be called artists. Photo below from (I think) "Wild Life on a Tidal Water' (1890) showing the river at Norwich at dawn.