Carleton Watkins at the Getty Museum
This past weekend I had the good fortune of visiting the J. Paul Getty Museum, where I found an exhibition of photographs and equipment belonging to Carleton Watkins. The exhibit, titled Dialogue among Giants, will be open until March 1, 2009. I encourage anybody in the area to go visit it; and remember that the Getty offers free entry to everyone.
Carleton Watkins was one of the pioneers of Californian photography in the 19th century. Born in 1829 in Oneonta, upstate New York, he travelled to San Francisco at the age of 22, just in time to catch the Gold Rush. Carleton is believed to have learnt to make Daguerreotype prints in a San Jose portrait studio where he worked in the early 1850s. By the mid 1850s he had started experimenting with collodion-on-glass negatives, as these could be printed repeatedly on paper, while Daguerreotypes produced only a single image.
By the end of the decade he was shooting his Mammoth Camera, an enormous contraption designed to expose oversized 18×22 inch plate negatives (see on the left a photo of the camera in the exhibition, courtesy of the L.A. Times). The reason for this was that negatives could not be enlarged in those days, so prints were necessarily the size of the negative. Carleton and other photographers of the time wanted to compete with painters and see their work treated as Art, hence their desire to produce large photographs from which multiple copies could be made.
Not only was the camera large, but Watkins needed a back up (like all good photographers), and as developing of the negatives was carried out in situ, he also had to carry with him chemicals, glass plates, a tent for a darkroom and various other equipment wherever he travelled. And so, in 1861, he set off with a dozen mules on his first trip to Yosemite. There, he took 30 mammoth plate and 100 stereograph views of the famous valley and rock formations. These photographs were the first views of Yosemite that many in the East of the United States had ever seen and were instrumental in convincing then president Abraham Lincoln to sign the 1864 bill that declared the valley inviolable, thus paving the way for the National Parks system.
Watkins went on to photograph mining towns, farms, rail roads, ports, Yellowstone, San Francisco and other West coast cities, all the abandoned Spanish missions in California after the state confiscation, and a large part of the Californian coast line.
His work was celebrated across the World, from Paris to New York to San Francisco. But despite this artistic success, Watkins had little business sense and suffered financial duress for a large part of his life. Further setbacks came from losing the contents of his studios to natural disasters on two separate occasions. The last, in the 1906 earthquake of San Francisco, together with his failing eyesight, forced him into retirement. His mental health deteriorated from then on and in 1910 Watkins was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane where he died in 1916.
Despire these losses, a good number of mammoth prints and stereographs have survived, with a few dozen being shown at the Getty exhibition. There I also saw a mammoth camera like the one Watkins would have used (pictured above, I don’t think it was one of his). I will remember this camera every time I complain that my DSLR is too big and heavy.
“It was refreshing to see an old master breaking the rules so successfully.”
I admit that it was refreshing to admire Watkins’s photography (and believe me, these small online versions do no justice to the large originals, old as they are). His style was clear and present throughout decades of pictures: he liked mounting his camera high, way above the head line; whenever possible he would shoot buildings in diagonal; and he was not afraid to break rules—when photographing trees for example, he would place them boldly in the middle of the frame, where there was no question of what the subject of the photo was. While his photos of Yosemite or Yellowstone lack the visual punch of Ansel Adams’s pictures, taken decades later, I still believe the love for the subject that Watkins expressed comes through in the print. He was a true craftsman, as well as an artist, and he took great care in where he positioned his camera. Another sign of restless artistry is the revisiting of subjects, sometimes decades apart, showing the appreciation Watkins had for the scenes he was photographing, and the fact that the same scene could yield completely different works of art depending on the eye of the photographer…even if it was the same photographer on two different occasions.
There is much to learn from this old master.
You may find some of his stereographs at the unfinished website dedicated to him, CarletonWatkins.org.