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Carleton Watkins: An Eye for the West

Born in 1829 in Oneonta, New York, the son of an innkeeper, Carleton Watkins arrived in California around 1851. He learned how to photograph by chance when he filled in for an absent employee in a photography studio, and by 1860 he had a studio in a burgeoning San Francisco photography district. San Francisco was one of the most important photographic centers in the country during the second half of the nineteenth century, and Watkins made the city his home base for his entire photographic career. He was one of the founding members of the San Francisco Art Association in the 1870s, an organization that would later become the founding entity for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

At the height of his career, Watkins was a leader in his field. His photographs were sought after by Ralph Waldo Emerson, helped convince Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Bill in 1864, were exhibited at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris, and were later seen by Napoleon III. His Yosemite Art Gallery, founded in 1871, was one of the most lavish and extensive photographic enterprises in the world. However, with increased competition and the economic crash of the mid-1870s, the tide of Watkins' financial fortunes turned. By the 1890s he was reduced to poverty and lived in a railroad boxcar with his family for eighteen months.

From the beginning of his career, Watkins was struck by the immensity of the California landscape, and he sought to render its expansive space and scale. To those outside California, reports of oversized Western natural resources seemed incredible; the colossal mountains, giant trees, and vast deserts defied belief. Watkins' photographs served as visual proof for the veracity of these claims; they also provided statistical measurements of the natural wonders to accompany the images. In order to convey expansive landscapes, Watkins utilized the panorama format, which enabled him to emphasize the sweep of the horizon line. Two of Watkins' photographic panoramas, which when framed measure up to eight feet in width, will be on view in the exhibition.

Watkins worked for over 30 years selling photographic prints and albums to scientists, investors, mining engineers, homesteaders, and tourists. Colonel John Fremont, the explorer who mapped the west with his friend Kit Carson, enlisted Watkins to photograph his land and mines. It was his association with Fremont that first led Watkins to photograph Yosemite in the early 1860s, resulting in some of his most famous images. In 1867 the photographer traveled to Portland, Oregon, and up the Columbia River gorge, making several photographs that have since become icons of Western landscape photography. Through his childhood friend Collis Huntington, Watkins became the unofficial photographer for the Central Pacific and Southern Railroads in the 1870s and 1880s and was allowed free travel along their lines. As he expanded the range of his activity in the 1880s, so too did he find new subjects to depict for a broadening audience of tourists.

The radical way Watkins viewed the landscape derives in part from his lifelong association with the railroad; the towns and industries that arose in the West along its right-of-way became a persistent subject in his later career. The railroad made a new kind of landscape as it penetrated the continent, and Watkins aligned his photography with the changing perceptions the train brought about.

* Adapted from press materials produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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Press Release

Carleton Watkins: An Eye for the West

Stereo Views: The Nineteenth Century Meets the Twenty-First Century*