Carleton E. Watkins: An Ode to Yosemite


Carleton Watkins moved to California from New York, where he was born in 1851, in the hope of finding gold. Though this proved unsuccessful, while working as a clerk in a bookstore Watkins happened upon a job overseeing the studio of Robert H. Vance, a well-known Daguerreotypist. Watkins knew nothing of photography when he took the job, but Vance taught him the basics and he quickly 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 the decision that would change the course of his career. He travelled to the Yosemite Valley with both his mammoth-plate (18 x 22 inch glass plate) 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. By the end of his trip he returned home with 30 glass plates and almost one hundred stereo-view negatives. 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. This first series of images led to his employment by the California State Geological Survey, who hired him to return to Yosemite to make a new series of prints in 1864. Watkins’ use of the complex wet-collodion process rendered with exquisite finesse the vastness and grandeur of Yosemite’s glacial valleys dramatic waterfalls, massive rock faces and majestic trees. In this print Watkins photographs the now famous Washington Column reflected with precision in the glassy surface of a small lake. Following this series of work, Watkins’ photographs helped convince Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to preserve Yosemite Valley, and in 1864 Lincoln declared the area inviolate and initiated the blueprint for the nation’s National Park System.

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. Cook reproduced the prints and went on to sell the photographs without giving credit to Watkins. Further misfortune followed with the loss of his sight which meant he could no longer take pictures, and in 1906 Watkins lost the majority of his work in an earthquake and fire that swept through San Francisco. Watkins died in 1916 having been committed to a Napa State Hospital in 1910.

This particular print is in superb condition, with strong contrasts and very little deterioration of the print surface. As such it is a rare and worthy representation of Watkins’ important Yosemite images from that period, which helped to both transform the history of photography and to protect the American natural environment.

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