Pioneering portraits

Landscape photographer Carleton Watkins showed American West to the world

One hundred and 50 years ago this year, as the Civil War raged, and the 38th congress worked to pass the 13th Amendment, the house managed to pass an act that must have seemed far less pressing at the time, but which ultimately laid the groundwork for one of America's most cherished institutions. The Yosemite Grant Act of 1864, legally preserved Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove for the enjoyment of American citizens and protected it from future development. The act, the first of its kind, paved the way for the National Park System.

And it may have never been signed if not for the work of one intrepid photographer, named Carleton Watkins.

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is currently exhibiting 156 images taken by the pioneering landscape photographer between 1861 and 1876. The work on display, "Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums," comes from three albums, originally commissioned by Mollie Latham, wife to California's sixth governor, Milton Slocum Latham.

Altogether, the Lathams' albums comprise a collection of images taken during Watkins' multiple expeditions into the Yosemite Valley, as well as shots he took of industrial operations in the early days of the American West. The photographs include scenes of hydraulic mining, steamboats and logging outposts, up and down the West Coast, from California to Oregon, as well as many landscape portraits Watkins captured during his travels.

"This is a really important show for Stanford and the Cantor Arts Center," says Anna Koster, head of communications for the center.

Connie Wolf, director of the Cantor Arts Center, agreed, saying in a press release that the exhibit provides "an unparalleled opportunity to examine Watkins' place in the history of photography, and to more fully understand the critical role photography played in the preservation, promotion and development of the West." Wolf adds that Stanford is an "apt home" for the collection, as Watkins and Leland Stanford were contemporaries, and that Watkins photographed the Stanford family. In fact, one of the last images in the exhibit is a portrait of Leland Stanford Jr., after whom the university is named.

Perusing the exhibit, which opened this week, it is plain to see how Watkins' work could have moved Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to push for passage of the Yosemite Grant Act. The images capture the stark beauty, immensity and strength of the natural world.

Watkins was born in Oneonta, N.Y., in 1829, just a few years after the first photograph was ever taken. At 19 years old, he left for the West Coast with the initial goal of finding gold. But after arriving in 1851 he ended up working at a store in Sacramento, selling supplies to prospectors.

He left the job after the store burned down, finding work in the studio of Robert H. Vance, where he learned the daguerreotype process. From there, he moved to another studio, owned by James May Ford, where he learned a different kind of photographic technology, the ambrotype, as well as wet plate collodion photography.

He was soon paying his way through life as a portrait photographer. In his free time he took up landscape photography, which eventually led to commissioned work for industrialists seeking to document their endeavors, as well as collectors who wanted images from the American frontier.

In his landscape photography Watkins used techniques he picked up from the great landscape painters of antiquity -- seeking out geometric forms, recording the sweeping curves of rivers and mountain sides, capturing the reflection of rock formations in the lakes below, and playing with the full range of bright silver-white to the deep, dark blacks his camera trapped with its large, glass-plate negatives.

Though he was not the first landscape photographer, he may have been the first great one, according to Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, curator of the exhibit. "He really took the time to create an aesthetically balanced composition, but also one that really captures the character of the place," Mitchell says -- "really setting an aesthetic standard."

Watkins was an influence on every great landscape photographer that followed him, including Ansel Adams, Mitchell says. His work was circulated throughout the United States and in Europe, and his photographs were often translated into engravings, which were printed in widely published books on Yosemite and other destinations.

Watkins' photographs of the Yosemite Valley are quite large, and were especially big for the time. Watkins commissioned someone, likely a cabinet maker, to construct a special camera, which he used to capture the "mammoth" 18- by 22-inch glass-plate negatives.

The use of the large glass plates contributes to the detail of the images, which are much clearer and contain much more detail than a standard point-and-shoot digital camera would be able to capture today, and may even surpass the fidelity of some mid-range professional cameras currently on the market.

Some of the images are so crisp and detailed they take on a surreal quality, as deep blacks give way to bright silver and white tones with no gradation whatsoever. In a shot looking out from the shore of the Columbia River, the viewer can just about make out the individual whiskers of a man sitting in a boat, quite some distance from where Watkins and his photography equipment stood. Next to the man, a box of apples are clearly distinguishable, each individual piece of shiny fruit discernible from the next.

"There's an extraordinary amount of detail," Mitchell says.

Considering the care it must have taken to transport the the custom camera, at least 100 glass plates and a collection of volatile and flammable photography chemicals down into the valley, adds to the wonder of the images. On a tour of the exhibit, Mitchell details how Watkins "was hauling a literal ton of equipment" on the backs of 12 pack mules on his 1865 trip to Yosemite.

Further adding to the power of the collection is the condition of the prints. They are pristine.

Mitchell says that is because they have mostly remained protected from the environment in the Latham family albums since they were first printed in the 1860s. A few of the photographs have been exhibited, but those showings have been few and far between, Mitchell says. And in the more than 75 years they've been kept by the Stanford University Libraries, only a few scholars and faculty have known of their existence.

Since publicizing the exhibition, the photos have drawn wide attention.

"We've had curators from all over the country come and look at them and they've been amazed," Mitchell says.

"Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums" runs Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursdays until 8 p.m.) through Aug. 17. Admission is free. The Cantor Arts Center is located at 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford. Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.


Like this comment
Posted by randy albin
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 24, 2014 at 10:45 am

wow, this looks really neat. any ansel adams fans who would follow this? tell us more about this interesting subject, please

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