An old man holding a baby. A neoteric airplane flying over the dilapidated houses on the edge of hinterland. An aerial shot of the Las Vegas Strip, the remains of Old Las Vegas pushed aside by the hand of hotel-casinos as big as the world. All work. Though none as well as P.H. Emerson’s Plate 12 from Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads.
Each time you examine the photograph, better known as The Old and the New, you will witness a new metaphorical system at play. The photograph, taken in 1886 by this Cuban-born photographer, is of a boat, sails stretching out like bat wings, navigating the Norfolk Broads, a series of freshwater marshes and streams on England’s eastern shore which, in most of Emerson’s photographs, resemble the antebellum South.
There are three people sitting in this scow, perhaps symbolizing the three main stages of life. Though it’s actually the edge of photograph, where a decaying windmill watches lonely from the sidelines as the new, steam-driven dredging mill pumps away, that gives this photograph its name.
And it doesn’t end there. The wind, that once powered this outdated mill, blows smoke from the chimney of its replacement, while simultaneously giving power to the ship by igniting its mast. If only the boat had a motor.
Emerson’s photographs invoke not an era lost (though it, of course, was) but an era eroding. However, when you take a picture of anything – boat, airplane, house, baby or septagarian – isn’t it of something eroding?
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