Watkins was one of the most influential photographers of the nineteenth-century and his images of the Yosemite Valley greatly impacted the development of modern photography. In addition, the photographs which Watkins produced of this American wilderness contributed in no small part to President Lincoln’s declaration of Yosemite’s inviolate status, and acted as a blueprint for the nation’s National Park System.
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Carleton Watkins was born in Oneonta, New York, in 1829. Enticed by the opportunities of the California Gold rush, Watkins moved from New York to California in 1851 in the hope of finding gold. However, when this venture proved unsuccessful he took a job managing the studio of Robert H. Vance, a well-known Daguerreotypist at the time. Upon taking the job Watkins knew nothing of photography, however, once Vance taught him the basics, Watkins soon excelled at the medium. By 1858 he had opened his own studio and received several commissions from the mining and railroad industries of California to photograph the development of the American West.
It was in 1861 that Watkins made a choice that would change the course of his career. He travelled to the Yosemite Valley with both his mammoth-plate (18 x 22 inch) and his stereoscopic cameras. Using the large plate camera to capture the landscape’s detail, he used the stereoscopic equipment to give a sense of depth to his images. Yosemite Valley had rarely been photographed before and the photographs he took were some of the first pictures of the area to ever be seen by Americans on the East Coast. Watkins’ photographs helped create an awareness of the need to preserve the Yosemite Valley and eventually led to President Abraham Lincoln signing the 1864 bill that declared the valley inviolable, which then paved the way for the Yosemite National Park system that we know today. His photographs convincingly capture the grandeur of Yosemite’s glacial valleys, dramatic waterfalls, rock faces and magnificent trees, and reflect the quiet stillness of the park’s natural landscape.
A few years later, Watkins opened his own gallery, the Yosemite Art Gallery, where he exhibited the majority of work he had produced over the years, including both stereoscopic and large glass plate views. He was, however, unable to keep the gallery running and was forced to sell it, and its contents, to his creditor J.J.Cook. Unfortunately Cook then reproduced the prints and went on to sell the photographs without giving credit to Watkins. Following the loss of his sight, which meant he could no longer take pictures, in 1906 Watkins suffered further misfortune when the majority of his work was lost in an earthquake in San Francisco. Watkins died in 1916 after having been committed to a Napa State hospital in 1910.