Watkins' Life and Works
As specimens of the photographic art they are unequaled. The views are...indescribably
unique and beautiful. Nothing in the way of landscapes can be more impressive.
Exhibition review of Yosemite Valley photographs by Carleton Watkins at Goupil Gallery, New York, The New York Times, 1862
Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), the creator of the striking photographs of the remote Yosemite Valley that so inspired the New York Times critic, had moved to California around 1851 from the small New York town of Oneonta. One of many young men drawn to the West during the Gold Rush, he first worked in Sacramento as a teamster and carpenter for a dry goods establishment. In 1853 he moved to San Francisco, where by chance he learned how to photograph when asked to stand in for an absent employee in a photography studio. He soon established his own business making photographs for land dispute cases and mining interests. Following his first photographic expedition to Yosemite in the summer of 1861, Watkins' reputation was securely established, and for the next two decades he created some of the finest American landscape photographs of the nineteenth century.
From the outset of his career, Watkins searched for ways to bring his subjects alive to those unable to experience them firsthand. He often used a stereo camera that produced two near-identical images of the same scene, which, when viewed through a binocular viewer called a stereoscope, or a more elaborate stereo cabinet, created an illusion of startling three-dimensional depth.
Hampered by the limited size of his traditional camera, Watkins asked a cabinetmaker in 1861 to build a huge camera for him capable of making negatives measuring 18 by 22 inches, called mammoth plates. With this instrument, Watkins was able to capture the enormous scale of the vast landcapes of the American West as well as intricate details. He transported this large, heavy camera, with tripod, glass plates, and a portable darkroom, to the most forbidding spots, and consistently returned with images of superb technical quality.
Viewers around the country were entranced by Watkins' photographs. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that his images of the massive sequoia, Grizzly Giant, "made the tree possible," for these photographs provided evidence of its existence. The landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt, saw Watkins' photographs at the Goupil Gallery in New York in 1862 and was inspired by them to visit the Yosemite Valley. Senator John Conness of California, who laid the foundations for the Yosemite Bill of 1864 to protect the area from development and commercial exploitation, also owned a set of Watkins' prints.
In 1864 and 1865, Watkins was hired by the geologists Josiah Whitney and William Brewer to make photographs of Yosemite for their California State Geological Survey. A new wide-angle lens and several new trails along the precipitous rim of the valley allowed him to make pictures of increasing complexity and daring. Watkins returned to Yosemite on several other occasions in the 1860s and 1870s.
During these years, he traveled further afield in search of new subjects: he sailed to the barren Farallon Islands, twenty-six miles off the California coast; he photographed the geysers of Sonoma County; he traveled to Mount Shasta in the northern part of the state; and he documented the massive hydraulic gold mining operations in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Watkins received support in his travels from his friend Collis Huntington, a principal in the Central Pacific Railroad, who offered him a flatcar to carry his van filled with photographic materials. By 1869 the Central Pacific line had pushed through the Sierra Nevada mountains, enabling Watkins to make photographs of the wilderness landscapes that could now be seen by railroad travelers.
With the railroad reaching Southern California and Arizona, Watkins was able to travel to the resorts at the end of its tracks. In Kern County, California, he photographed peaches and other crops grown with the aid of new irrigation systems, and in ever more remote parts of the West, he continued to make pictures for land inventories. His travels, however, began to be curtailed by deteriorating health, and by his marriage at the age of fifty and the subsequent birth of two children. For the rest of his life, Watkins was plagued by economic hardship; in 1895 he lived with his wife and children for several months in an abandoned railroad boxcar. He lost his studio in an earthquake in 1906, by which time he had stopped making photographs, and died in 1916.