Carleton Watkins’ 1860s photographs of Yosemite
An exhibition of Carleton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite taken in the 1860s has just opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. His photographs show the now familiar, breathtaking views: Yosemite falls, Half Dome, El Capitan. They are grand and stately in their proportions and contain an extraordinary level of detail. It’s not surprising that viewers at the time were awestruck. They made Watkins’s name as a photographer and helped to influence the environmental movement that led to Congress and President Lincoln turning Yosemite into a national park.
Watkins was born in New York in 1829 and moved to California when he was 20. Soon after, he learned how to make photographs, a medium that was about as old as he was. These were the days of long exposures, glass plates, and processes that not only took time but were messy and toxic. Watkins began his commercial career by photographing California’s burgeoning mining industry for land-claim lawsuits. His images needed to be as straight and correct as possible so they could be used in court as evidence. In 1861 Watkins was persuaded to visit Yosemite by the lawyer and businessman Trenor Park, whose mines he had photographed in nearby Mariposa.
At the time, people spoke about Yosemite as though it were a Garden of Eden. Only the adventurous few had ventured into the wilderness and seen the spectacular valley, with its towering cliffs and thundering waterfalls. Yosemite had become a place of legend, a wonder of nature. Any mention of the Ahwahnechee who had lived in the valley for centuries was rare.
With its monumental subjects in mind, Watkins had a cabinet maker build a mammoth camera. It was so big it held 18×22 inch glass-plate negatives. To transport all the camera equipment Watkins needed a 12-mule train. Just lugging all this equipment into Yosemite was an extraordinary feat in itself.
The photographs that Watkins created on this and subsequent expeditions to Yosemite show his mastery of balance and scale. He pointed his camera at the great rocks, trees and waterfalls and the result was as honest a portrait of nature as his mining pictures were of industry. He photographed as square-on to his subjects as he could get, and he filled the frame. When you look at the pictures your eyes revel in the textures. They have an incredible clarity that rejoices in the magnificence of nature.
Watkins enjoyed a great deal of success in his career – he won awards and exhibited internationally – but he was also a terrible businessman and very unlucky. By the end of the century he was nearly blind and living in poverty, but in 1906 it seemed like his luck might change – Stanford University was negotiating to buy his collection. Only a few days later, the earthquake hit San Francisco, and his studio burned to the ground in the fire that followed. His entire life’s work – glass negatives, albums, prints, documents – were gone. All we are left with of the man himself are a handful of letters, a diary, and some of the greatest landscape photographs taken in the 19th century.