Born in 1829 in Oneonta, New York, Carleton Watkins arrived in California around 1851. After working as a teamster and carpenter in Sacramento, he moved to San Francisco in 1853, where he learned to photograph by chance after filling in for an absent studio assistant. By 1858, Watkins was operating as a freelance photographer in San Francisco, one of the foremost photographic centers in the country during the second half of the nineteenth century. A founding member of the San Francisco Art Association (which later became the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Watkins maintained a residence in San Francisco for the rest of his career.
The main subject of Watkins' photography is the sublime beauty of the American West. Working during the years of the West's "discovery" by the rest of the country, Watkins sought to convey to his viewers the spacious grandeur of the region's landscapes, including its massive mountains, ancient trees, and vast deserts. To this end, he explored various ways of making photographs, for example using a stereo camera that produced two near-identical images of the same scene. When viewed through a binocular viewer called a stereoscope, it created the illusion of three-dimensional depth. Watkins also employed the panorama format to emphasize both the sheer immensity and the wide horizontal sweep of his subjects. Dissatisfied with the limitations imposed by his traditional camera, in 1861 he hired a cabinetmaker to fabricate a massive camera that could accommodate glass negatives measuring 18 by 22 inches, called mammoth plates.
In addition to working on commissions for industries and government-sponsored surveys, Watkins made both individual prints and albums that he sold through his studio to a diverse clientele, including scientists, investors, mining engineers, homesteaders, and tourists. Among his most important projects was photographing Yosemite Valley in the 1860s, an endeavor that resulted in some of his most famous and beloved images. In 1867 Watkins traveled up the West Coast, making photographs of Portland, Oregon, and the Columbia River gorge. He exhibited thirty of the mammoth prints made on this trip later that year in the Paris Universal Exhibition, where they garnered him a bronze medal.
By 1871, he had achieved a high degree of commercial and critical success. He moved to a new studio in San Francisco and opened the Yosemite Art Gallery, where he displayed hundreds of mammoth prints and stereo views. During this period, Watkins also made numerous photographs for the Central Pacific Railroad, which granted him a personal boxcar in which to travel and store his equipment. In 1880, he embarked on a major journey throughout southern California, Nevada, and Arizona on the Southern Railroad, making photographs of mining, the oil industry, agriculture, and the hundreds of new towns that had sprung up in the wake of the railroad's expansion. A principal subject in Watkins' later work, the railroad--which transformed the landscape even as it penetrated the continent--encouraged a new way of seeing and experiencing space, one that Watkins conveyed photographically through the use of large print size, piercing spatial depth, and dramatic framing.
At the height of his career, Watkins was a leader in his field and enjoyed a reputation as a highly accomplished photographer. However, with increased competition, the economic crash of the mid-1870s, and ailing health, the tide of his financial fortunes turned, and by the 1890s he was reduced to poverty and hardship. By the time the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his studio and negatives, he had stopped making photographs. He died in 1916.
Carleton E. Watkins: Photogrpahs of the Columbia River and Oregon. Carmel, California, 1979.
Pare, Richard. Photography and Architecture, 1839-1939. New York, 1982.
Palmquist, Peter E. Carleton E. Watkins, Photographer of the American West. Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1983.