Born in Cuba of an American father and English mother, Emerson studied medicine in England before taking up photography in 1885. He was the founder of the Naturalist school in opposition to the pictorial photography of the late 19th century, and advocated the soft focus lens techniques. His record of life in the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads was published in a series of books, the most important being the first, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads (1887). Following its publication he made a study of photo-engraving processes which resulted in his subsequent books being illustrated with photogravures. Emerson renounced his views in 1890 with the publication of The Death of Naturalistic Photography.