A Brief History of Photography: Part 14 – Photography in Yosemite B.A. (Before Ansel)

In 2009, renowned documentary cinematographer Ken Burns released “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” to broad acclaim and helped inspire a surge in tourism and interest in the U.S. National Parks. One of the oldest and most popular of these is Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, and it has come to symbolize the American focus on the environmental and conservation movements. It can be argued that Yosemite has come to be regarded as a national beacon for preserving our nation’s national resources in large part through the influence of the photographic medium; the long reach and emotional impact of great photography captured the public’s attention and compelled government to take action to protect these national treasures. For this, we in the photography world can proudly applaud the extraordinary talents and achievements of – Carleton F. Watkins.

Figure 1:  Yosemite Valley from the
Figure 1: Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View” No. 2, 1866, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

Huh? What about Ansel Adams, the revered landscape photography icon? Or the naturalist John Muir, with his conservation writings? Were these not the key figures that secured Yosemite’s protected status? The fact is that Ansel Adams first visited and photographed the Yosemite Valley in 1916, when he was 14 years old.   Forty-eight years earlier, in 1868, John Muir made his first journey to Yosemite and realized its grandeur. Muir’s foray in turn was preceded by seven years, in 1861, when Carleton Watkins completed an ambitious photographic expedition to the valley that ignited national interest in the area and sowed the seeds for the federal protection of natural resources that we enjoy today.

Who was Carleton Watkins, what was so notable about his photographic work, how did it influence the creation of a national park system, and why does he remain so unremembered compared to Muir and Adams? This short treatise hopes to address each of these questions.

Figure 2:  Yo-Semite Valley from Mariposa Trail, 1866, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum
Figure 2: Yo-Semite Valley from Mariposa Trail, 1866, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

Watkins, born in 1829 in Oneonta, NY, moved in 1851 to California following the Gold Rush. He had no success finding gold, but worked for his friend Collis Huntington (who later became one of the “Big Four” owners of the Central Pacific railroad) delivering supplies to mining operators. He then began work as a store clerk near the San Francisco studio of Robert Vance, an established West Coast daguerreotypist, who also ran studios in Sacramento and San Jose. When one of Vance’s San Jose photographers unexpectedly departed, Vance apprenticed the likeable Watkins as a substitute “outside” man, or camera operator. Although Watkins had no photographic background, after some basic instruction in the daguerreotype and wet collodion processes, Vance thought Watkins’s amiable nature would keep customers happy enough until he could retake their portraits. Watkins, however, proved a quick study, and Vance found his customers were satisfied with the new photographer’s work. By 1858 Watkins was working independently, and found a business niche in photographing real estate and land claims in support of mining interests and for legal use as courtroom evidence. In the course of this work, Watkins also began doing personal landscape photography, and had great opportunity to explore new areas and vistas.

Figure 3:  The Three Brothers 4000 ft, Yo-Semite Valley, 1872, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum
Figure 3: The Three Brothers 4000 ft, Yo-Semite Valley, 1872, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

In 1861, Watkins accompanied Trenor Park, one of his clients and owner of the Mariposa gold mine, on a family excursion to the Yosemite Valley, a twenty-hour journey by stage and mule train from San Francisco. Only recently discovered by white settlers in 1849, the valley captivated Watkins with its majestic geography and views. Others had already depicted the valley: the first was Thomas A. Ayres, who published a series of lithographs of what he called the “Yohimity” valley in 1856; the first photographer to record Yosemite valley images was C.L. Weed in 1859, under contract with Robert Vance. Nonetheless, Watkins was inspired to revisit Yosemite that year in a major photographic undertaking, beginning with the commissioning of a “mammoth plate” camera employing 18 x 22 inch glass plates. Watkins chose this huge format for two reasons; first, to stand out in competition with Weed for the lucrative prospects of commercial photography in Yosemite; more importantly, the large plates provided the highest image quality and resolution possible for printing – enlarging had not been yet invented, so only by using a larger glass plate negative could a large, high-quality contact print be made.

In addition to the mammoth plate camera, Watkins also made wide use of stereographic cameras, which recorded two images simultaneously, with each image in a slightly different register. When such an image was then viewed with a binocular viewer, called a stereoscope, the captured image exhibited a striking three-dimensional appearance.

Figure 4: Tutocanula, 3600 ft., El Capitan Yosemite, 1861, by Carleton Watkins, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Stanford University
Figure 4: Tutocanula, 3600 ft., El Capitan Yosemite, 1861, by Carleton Watkins, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, courtesy of Stanford University

Watkins’s return to Yosemite in 1861 to photograph it with his mammoth plate and stereoscopic cameras must be seen as anything but a casual undertaking. The Yosemite then was newly discovered, wild and untamed, with no established roads. While the present day tourist can easily access Yosemite National Park and enjoy relatively stress-free travel within by car or tour bus, in 1861 this was an arduous journey by wagon and mule trail. Watkins’s mammoth plate camera alone weighed over 40 pounds, and each glass negative weighed about one pound. Accounting for the number of plates he needed to bring with him, along with the stereoscopic gear, the processing chemicals, the darkroom tents, and the typical camping and survival equipment required for an foray into the wilderness, Watkins needed to transport about 2000 pounds with him into the Yosemite valley. To haul this weight required the use of 12 mules. As seen in his photographs, Watkins had a keen eye for choosing his camera position to ensure commanding and esthetic views – his lack of compromise in this regard compelled him to frequently trek to high and treacherous locations to secure the optimum shooting perspective. The result of these efforts was his leaving the valley on this first visit with thirty mammoth plates and a hundred 5 x 5 inch stereo views. These landscape images not only set a formidably high bar for technical and artistic excellence, but they also set in motion one of the first environmental preservation movements in the U.S.

Figure 5:  Vernal Fall 350 ft, Yo Semite Valley, 1872, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum
Figure 5: Vernal Fall 350 ft, Yo Semite Valley, 1872, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

Watkins’s photographic work had dramatic impact with audiences in the eastern United States. Easterners had been reading glowing descriptions of the lands, vistas, and resources of the west, but until Watkins’s images became known, none had been able to appreciate their impact visually. Watkins’s photography also exhibited an extraordinary level of both technical prowess and a keen aesthetic eye. Despite his lack of formal training in photography or any other arts, he possessed a masterful eye for landscape composition and a dogged determination for finding “the spot which would give the best view.” He earned many photographic awards in his career, beginning with an award for “Mountain Views” at the San Francisco Mechanics Institute Exhibition in 1865, and in 1867 received an award for landscape photographs at the Paris International Exposition.

The grandeur, purity, and appeal of these western lands, captured so ably by Watkins, came to be appreciated by many at the same time another concept was growing in popularity. The idea of Manifest Destiny, the imperative to settle North America from the east through the west coast as one unified nation, had risen following the end of the Mexican War in 1848. This notion, in brief, maintained that the U.S. had a God-given right to expand the nation geographically, politically, and economically to the continental borders, to Americanize all people living inside the continental borders, and to derive what value and worth could be extracted from the lands and natural resources so obtained. This last point threatened the continued beauty and natural future of the Yosemite Valley.

Figure 6:  The Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite, 1867, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum
Figure 6: The Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite, 1867, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

Unitarian minister Starr King was one of the first voices calling for protection of the Yosemite in 1860-61, and he sent copies of Watkins’s images to Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson to solicit their support. In 1862 Watkins’s photographs were shown at Goupil’s New York gallery, where they found an appreciative audience in East Coast society. California senator John Conness, who owned a personal set of Watkins prints, widely shared them with other members of Congress, and is believed to have shown them to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. The result of this activism, significantly bolstered by the visual impact of Watkins’s work, was Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864. This unprecedented environmental protection was the first time the U.S. government specifically declared lands to be off-limits to commercial development or exploitation, and to be preserved for the public’s enjoyment. The Grant Act gave California responsibility to preserve and protect the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove; in 1865, Mount Watkins in Yosemite was named after him, and in 1890 President Benjamin Harrison signed legislation establishing Yosemite National Park, the third national park.

Watkins made photographs throughout the West, from British Columbia to Mexico, in Yellowstone, Utah, Arizona, along the Columbia River in Washington, and up and down the Pacific coast. He is still best known, however, for his work in Yosemite. Watkins was without question an accomplished photographer, but he fared less well as a businessman. In 1867, tired of Eastern opportunists pirating his images, he began copyrighting his work. Following the banking crisis of 1875, Watkins fell behind in his debts and lost his studio, the Yosemite Art Gallery, along with all of his original negatives, to creditor J.J. Cook and photographer Isaiah Taber, who began to reproduce his early work without crediting him. Unable to combat this plagiarism, Watkins began recreating the iconic images he had lost, calling it the “New Series.”

In 1879, at age fifty, Watkins met and married Frances Sneed, then twenty-two years old; they had two children together. In the 1890’s, Watkins’s eyesight began to fail, and he was unable to continue working; for 18 months he and his family lived in an abandoned railroad car, until his old friend Huntington deeded him the 80-acre Watkins Capay Ranch in Yolo County. His wife raised the children at the ranch while he returned to a San Francisco studio, and with the help of assistants, attempted to continue making and selling prints. In April 1906, Watkins had made arrangements with Stanford University to take possession of his negatives and prints for preservation; just as all the items had been packed, but before they could be shipped away, the great San Francisco earthquake struck. A devastating fire that followed the quake swept through the part of the city where Watkins’s gallery was located, and nearly all of his life’s work was lost. For this reason, the only record of Watkins’s work, with rare exceptions, are the actual prints made over 100 years ago.

Figure 7:  Mount Watkins, Yosemite, 1872, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum
Figure 7: Mount Watkins, Yosemite, 1872, by Carleton Watkins, from the J. Paul Getty Museum

This loss, combined with his failing health, seemed to have broken Watkins’s spirit. He retired to the Capay Ranch with his family, where his health continued to decline. In 1909 his family had him declared incompetent, and his daughter became his guardian. By 1910 his condition had worsened, and he was confined to the Napa State Hospital, where he died in 1916.

In that same year, Ansel Adams first photographed Yosemite, and his subsequent contributions to our appreciation of the valley and to photography itself are undeniable. But Carleton Watkins was there first with his vision, his talent, and his impact on history… before Ansel.

Next Time: Rollei and the TLR

This is the fourteenth installment of an ongoing series on the history and development of the art of photography. It is inspired by the History of Photography class previously taught by Professor Jeff Curto in the College of DuPage Photography Program. While not a slavish copy of his work, I freely admit to following Curtos general course outline and sharing many of the perspectives he has developed. I would encourage anyone with a greater interest in this subject to follow his course online via video podcasts, at http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com.


A World History of Photography, 4th Ed, 2007 by Naomi Rosenblum

History of Photography Podcasts, class lectures with Jeff Curto from College of DuPage http://photohistory.jeffcurto.com

Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University: News Room, “Cantor Arts Center presents an exhibition in celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Yosemite Grant – Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums,” 23 Apr-17 Aug 2014, http://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/watkins.html

Carleton Watkins.org, “Carleton Watkins,” http://www.carletonwatkins.org/m_about_watkins.php

Deluca, Kevin and Demo, Anne, Oxford Journals: Environmental History, “Imagining Nature and Erasing Class and Race: Carleton Watkins, John Muir, and the Construction of Wilderness,” http://envhis.oxfordjournals.org/content/6/4/541.full.pdf

Fraenkel Gallery, “Carleton E. Watkins,” https://fraenkelgallery.com/artists/carleton-watkins

Green, Tyler, BlouinArtInfo, “New Carleton Watkins book is mammoth,” 6 Dec 2011, http://blogs.artinfo.com/modernartnotes/2011/12/new-carleton-watkins-book-is-mammoth/

Harlan, Becky, The National Geographic Society: Photography: PROOF, “Musings: Carleton Watkins’s Mammoth Vision of Yosemite,” 12 May 2014, http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/05/12/musings-carleton-watkinss-mammoth-vision-of-yosemite/

Hathaway, Bruce, Smithsonian Magazine, “About Carleton Watkins: On the life and career of the 19th-century American landscape photographer who captured Yosemite in stereo,” Jul 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/about-carleton-watkins-116195/?no-ist

Hickman, Leo, The Guardian, “Carleton Watkins and the photographs that saved Yosemite,” 30 Dec 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/dec/30/carleton-watkins-photographs-saved-yosemite

Hill, Eric, “Carleton E. Watkins,” Stereo World, Vol 41, No. 1, Mar-Apr 1977, pp 4-5, http://cprr.org/Museum/Stereo_World/Watkins/

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, “Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) and the West: 1860s-1870s,” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phws/hd_phws.htm

Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Collection Online, “Tutocanula, 3600 ft., El Capitan, Yosemite,” http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/view?exhibitionId=%7b07ECC706-6A3B-4AB0-A71F-F3F617E39F51%7d&oid=659030&pkgids=265&pg=1&rpp=20&pos=5&ft=*

National Gallery of Art, “Carleton Watkins – The Art of Perception,” http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/watkinsbro.htm

Sanborn, Margaret, Greater Oneonta Historical Society, “Carleton Emmons Watkins: Oneonta’s Photographic Genius,” Jan 1996, http://www.oneontahistory.org/watkins.htm

Strege, David, GrindTV, “Carleton Watkins Yosemite photos swayed Lincoln,” 10 Nov 2014, http://www.grindtv.com/random/carleton-watkins-yosemite-photos-swayed-lincoln/#4kRECgWzEsPkM8yG.97

Teicher, Jordan G., Slate.com, “Breathtaking Landscape Photos that helped make Yosemite a National Park,” 30 May 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2014/05/30/stanford_university_s_cantor_arts_center_presents_the_exhibition_carleton.html

The J. Paul Getty Museum: Museum Collection Search, http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/search/?view=grid&query=YTo0OntzOjE3OiJfZGF0ZV9yYW5nZV9iZWdhbiI7czo1OiItNTAwMCI7czoxNzoiX2RhdGVfcmFuZ2VfZW5kZWQiO3M6NDoiMjAxNCI7czo4OiJtYWtlci5pZCI7YToxOntpOjA7aToxOTUzO31zOjQ6InNvcnQiO3M6NjoiLXNjb3JlIjt9&options=YToxOntzOjk6ImJlaGF2aW91ciI7czo2OiJ2aXN1YWwiO30%3D

The J. Paul Getty Museum, “Dialogue among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California,” http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/dialogue_giants/

Wikipedia, “Carleton Watkins,” http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carleton_Watkins

Wikipedia, “History of the Yosemite area,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Yosemite_area

Willette, Jeanne, Art History Unstuffed, “Carleton Watkins (1829-1916),” 10 Apr 2105, http://www.arthistoryunstuffed.com/carleton-watkins-1829-1916/

Wood, Sura, SF/Arts, “Before Ansel Adams, There was Carleton Watkins,” http://sfarts.org/feature.cfm?featureID=349&title=before-ansel-adams-there-was-carleton-watkins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s