Photographs from Nature by Arthur Irving Emerson

by Larissa Glasser, Library Assistant
June 24, 2014

Arthur Irving Emerson

Photographs from Nature by Arthur Irving Emerson

Our Trees: How to Know Them

The 1908 version of Our Trees: How to Know Them.

Our Trees: How to Know Them, original plate

One of Emerson’s original plates from in the Arnold Arboretum Archives.

Our Trees: How to Know Them, was originally printed in 1905 as a guide to native trees in America by the naturalist and instructor Clarence Moores Weed (1864-1947). His descriptions of each species are written in non-technical language, clearly with the amateur arborist or those with horticultural hobbies in mind. But what truly draws the reader in are the large, full-page images that correspond with Weed’s text. These black and white photographs were taken by the photographer Arthur Irving Emerson (1860-1937), a New England native born and raised in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. With his images, Emerson is able to break down the tree into different, recognizable elements. Every page has crisp, close-up views of foliage and fruit, bark and branches, displaying identifiable pieces of each species. A small scale image of the full grown tree is included in the collage, as if to show what these puzzle pieces look like when finally put back together.

While this type of detailed layout of flora and fauna had already been done for centuries by illustrators, the use of photography makes the guide book a bit different for its time. Because of the detail and almost life-like size of the seeds and leaves, the reader may be reminded of pressed flowers in a journal. This is especially noticeable in the original photographic plates that can be found in the Arnold Arboretum Archive Collection. In 1942, Arthur Emerson’s brother Frank sold the Emerson’s house to Thomas Campbell, who came across the plates of Our Trees within the home. In 1970, Campbell gave the collection to his daughter Mary Campbell King and she donated them to the archives in 1997. These plates, larger in size with a sepia tone, (which may have to do with how they were developed or simply the chemical change over time), have an even richer look to them than the book’s copies. Many of the leaves seem to have a depth, a shadow or shine, that make them jump off the page in a way a reproduction never could.

Not only is this collection a wonderful gift to the archives for its artistic and historical aspects, but the author draws a connection to the Arboretum in his preface. Weed states that the trees photographed were taken in their natural habitat, but that, “. . . in the case of a number of rare or local species advantage has been taken of the unrivaled collection of trees in the Arnold Arboretum, a privilege for which we are indebted to the kind permission of the Director, Professor Charles Sprague Sargent, and the helpful assistance of his associates, especially Messrs. C. E. Faxon, W. J. Dawson, and J. G. Jack.” Weed goes on to point out that the sequence of trees he follows and the technical names he uses follows Sargent’s Manual for the Trees of North America.

For more on Arthur Irving Emerson photography visit the Chelmsford Historical Society’s glass plate negative collection.

Our Trees: How to Know Them, Photographs from Nature by Arthur. I. Emerson; with a Guide to their Recognition at Any Season of the Year and Notes on their Characteristics, Distribution, and Culture is available at multiple Harvard University Libraries.

Stephanie Turnbull, Library Assistant

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