Words and Pictures
Carleton Emmons Watkins: Oneonta's Photographic Genius
by Margaret Sanborn, January 1996
When Carleton E. Watkins of Oneonta, New York, arrived by ship at San Francisco, in the wake of the 1849 gold rush to California, there were no obvious signs that this young man, approaching twenty-two, would become the foremost landscape photographer of the 19th century. His latent genius needed only a spark to ignite it, and, typical of human affairs, this came by chance. One day in the summer of 1855, Robert Vance, a successful San Francisco daguerreotypist, asked his friend Watkins to take charge of an out-of-town branch gallery until he could replace an operator who had left suddenly. Although Watkins knew nothing about photography, he agreed, so Vance gave him some basic instructions in the hope they would carry him through the coming Sunday, the most popular time for portrait sittings. Bluff his way, Vance advised, he would be back next week to make necessary retakes. When Vance returned he found that Watkins had mastered the technique, and that his search for an operator was over. Watkins, in turn, had discovered his life's interest and work.
By 1856 Watkins was experimenting with the new wet-plate negative process which he had learned from Vance. Although still laborious, there were great advantages over daguerreotypes because multiple prints could be made on paper, and large pictures taken simply by using a bigger camera. This was ideal for landscape photography which Watkins preferred to portraiture, for he was, according to a friend, "a man in love with Nature," drawn especially to outdoor California where the quality of light enhanced every view, and scenery was dramatic. His first pictures of the coutryside brought him almost immediate acclaim because of the clarity of articulate detail, and original approach when, instead of picturing natural objects of size head on, as was usually done, he captured them in profile or reflected on quiet waters, the mood meditative. In 1858 he was hired to make panoramic views of a quicksilver mine as evidence in a lawsuit. The use of photographs in legal cases was new, and because of the quality of his work, Watkins was often called upon. In this action, when asked in court who had selected the point from which he had taken the picture, he replied: "I did... I went to the spot which would give the best view." His understanding of what comprised the "best view," his awareness of balanced composition, proper contrasts, and the use of reflections, were innate-- manifestations of his genius, for there were no schools of photography as there were schools of painting, where he could learn. Photography was new.
Carleton E. Watkins was the son of John M. Watkins, an Oneonta innkeeper. His mother was Julia Ann (MacDonald) Watkins, whose family, the MacDonalds, were founders of Oneonta. It is probable that Carleton was lured to California by the commercial success of his Oneonta friend Collis P. Huntington, destined to become a millionaire and promoter of the trans-continental Central Pacific Railroad. By the early 1850s (he had come west in 1849) Huntington was about to make his first fortune in the hardware business at Sacramento, gateway to the rich gold deposits of the Sierra foothills, and Watkins went to work for him. Then, in November 1852, a disastrous fire destroyed the store and Watkins' quarters. He turned to carpentry, helping to rebuild the town, and went to live with George W. Murray, another Oneonta friend, who was a prospering Sacramento bookseller and stationer.
The year 1854 proved fateful for Watkins when George Murray moved his business to San Francisco, and Carleton moved with him. He became a clerk for Murray & Company, located in the newly completed Montgomery Block, described by a contemporary as "the largest, most elegant, and imposing edifice in California." One of the owners was Trenor W. Park of North Bennington, Vermont, an attorney who represented Col. John C. Fremont's mining interests located just west of Yosemite. It was while Watkins was working at Murray's that Robert Vance asked him to take temporary charge of his gallery.
In 1860 Watkins received, through Trenor Park, his first big commission, to make a photographic record of Fremont's property. He drove over the 44,000 acres in an open wagon, searching for the best views of mines, structures, and terrain, when he would stop, set up his dark-tent hardly larger than himself, to coat his glass-plates, and later process the negatives. The next year Fremont showed these pictures to the Rothschilds and other Paris bankers, as well as to the Emperor Napoleon III, hoping to interest investors, for his estate was over a million dollars in debt. The photographs were admired as works of art, but Fremont failed to raise capital.
Watkins made his first trip to Yosemite with Trenor Park and his family, in 1861. He took with him a special 18-by-22-inch camera made to his specifications, and twelve mules to carry his equipment, weighing perhaps a thousand pounds. The camera consisited simply of a wooden box with an opening in front for the lens and one at the back for the ground-glass plate. With this camera he was to make a series of views which elevated his work to the status of fine art, and brought him honors and fame at home and internationally. These pictures (which introduced Yosemite to the world), became noted for their absence of human figures or signs of man's presence. "All seems wild, primitive nature," one London critic wrote admiringly. This presentation of landscape appealed strongly to British and European viewers whose own pristine wilderness had vanished long ago.
The inspiration Watkins gained from Yosemite imparted a sense of mystery and wonder which enhanced the viewer's experience- yet this mystic quality was satisfying because it was free of all artificiality. His reputation spread rapidly, and soon the eminent critic of photography, the versatile Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, was describing Watkins' work as "a perfection of art." Charles Savage, a well-known British landscape photographer wrote that "among the most advanced in the photographic art, none stands higher than Mr. C.E. Watkins, who has produced results second to none in either the eastern or western hemispheres." In 1862 the pictures of Fremont's holdings were shown at an exposition in London, and that December there was an exhibit of Yosemite scenes at a New York City branch of Adolphe Goupil's Paris art Gallery. There most viewers saw Yosemite for the first time, and marveled at a landscape so extraordinary as to appear unreal. In truth, nowhere in the world does another like valley exist.
The landscape painter Albert Bierstadt studied Watkins' photographs as Goupil's and found the challenge to his brush so stimulating that by April 1863 he was on his way to paint in Yosemite. He came under its spell, just as Watkins had, and returned year after year for new field sketches. However, when making his final paintings at his home studio, Bierstadt relied on Watkins' photographs for renewed inspiration and for details. Most other painters of Yosemite used the Watkins pictures for this same purpose.
Carleton Watkins has never been duly credited for the early preservation of Yosemite Valley. Few realize that his "Yosemite Views" were chiefly responsible for the Valley being made a state park. By 1864 a group of concerned Californians, fearing that all of the area's groves of rare Giant Sequoia would be lumbered and the unique beauty of the Valley destroyed through sheep and cattle grazing, ranching, business enterprises and other exploitations, developed a novel plan to convert Yosemite into a "wild park" which no one would be allowed to alter. Although it would be set aside for public recreation, the State of California would control it. (All forest and public land was then held by the federal government.) With rare forethought, the prominent San Franciscan who proposed this action to California's United States senator included a copy of Watkins' "Yosemite Views" to be presented to Congress with the bill. It is said that the pictures made their way to the White House where President Lincoln studied them. It is known certainly that they were hung in the Senate for all to see. In spite of the multitude of distractions and pressing demands upon the federal government in this third year of the Civil War, the bill to make Yosemite a state park passed both houses, and Lincoln signed it into law on June 30, 1864. Such rapid action would have been impossible if the President and members of Congress had not the visual proof, through Watkins' camera, of the remarkable natural wonders they were called on to preserve.
Until 1866 Watkins had limited himself to scenes within Yosemite Valley and views from Inspiration Point, but that year he was asked to accompany the State Geological Survey to photograph Yosemite's high country as part of its work. He was at that point in his career when he made news, and the local press reported: quot;Mr. Watkins, the artist, is engaged at the present time... taking photographic views of wild mountain scenery." During that season he produced, at high altitudes, some of his most dramatic pictures in which scene and viewer seemed to drift dreamlike in space. As a tribute to his art and to himself, members of the survey named the 8,500-foot dome, soaring above Mirror Lake, Mt. Watkins. The next year he sent thirty Yosemite views to the Paris International Exposition, which awarded him first prize, and the only medal for landscape photography.
In 1870 Watkins moved his earlier Yosemite Art Gallery to a more commodious and fashionable location at 22 and 26 Montgomery Street, just opposite San Francisco's palatial and popular hotel, The Lick House, where Mark Twain stayed in 1863. Fittingly, Watkins' gallery which included a suite for portrait work, and a special exhibit room to display his ever-popular Yosemite scenes, was "elegantly furnished." It was said to be the finest gallery of its kind in this country. Watkins himself was an attraction, for he was well-liked, and he added to his already large circle of friends by making more among the prominent and wealthy San Franciscans who flocked to his gallery, with the result that he was commisioned to photograph their Nob Hill mansions and country homes, inside and out, and for commercial reasons, their ranches and cattle or crops. Although the houses and gardens were unpeopled, through his art Watkins managed a feeling of presence, as though the occupants had just stepped out of sight.
Watkins "circulated in the upper strata of society," accepted as an equal, which most artists were not. He attended dinner parties and balls given by these friends, his company appreciated because of his engaging personality and keen sense of humor. It has been remembered that he could discuss expertly the comparative qualities of French wine- or talk of books, for he was well-read. In 1872 he was invited to join San Francisco's exclusive Bohemian Club (which he did), reserved for artists and writers of outstanding achievement, and also became a member of the newly formed Art Union. The next year he was awarded a medal at the Vienna Exposition.
After the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad, Collis Huntington issued Watkins a permanent pass, furnished him a flat car to transport his photographic van (which replaced the dark-tent), horses, and equipment, and reserved space in a coach for his personal comfort. This enabled him to travel farther more quickly and easily, and was especially helpful after his decision to document the entire American West from Alaska to Mexico, and from the Pacific Coast east to the Rocky Mountains of Montana, a monumental task which furnished posterity with a priceless historic record.
But then misfortune fell. During one of his excursions, John J. Cook, who had advanced him money to finance his gallery, took advantage of his absence and called in the loan which Watkins had deferred paying. Cook ordered the gallery seized and the contents auctioned. I.W. Taber, a portrait photographer in the same building, acquired the negatives- some one hundred mammoth plates of Yosemite scenes and over a thousand stereoscopic views, which he hastened to print and sell under his own name. Angry but undefeated, Watkins was soon on his way to Yosemite to start what he called his "New Series," and try to recoup his financial losses. Setting up his camera at favorite points he obtained results of the same high artistic order, but with a difference in that there were evidences of increased sensitivity for his subject and a firmer grasp of technique, gained through experience and maturity.
On his fiftieth birthday in November 1879, Watkins married Frances Sneed of New York, twenty-eight years his junior. That same year he reopened his Yosemite Art Gallery at another address on Montgomery Street, next to the Palace Hotel. Reflecting the inn's elegance, the gallery was "handsomely...fitted up with solid walnut showcases, tables and easels" to display his new Yosemite series. The walls were hung with a wider range of subjects, reflecting his extensive travels. In addition, there were close-ups of Yosemite's trees, so detailed they were used by botanists to identify the species. There was, as well, a newly completed series of California's Franciscan Missions.
After the completion of the transcontinental railroad, increasing numbers of travelers began touring the West, and the demand for pictures of its spectacular scenery turned outdoor photography from an art form into a highly competitive business. The field was soon overrun by a host of mediocre picture-takers, who lowered prices. Carelton Watkins refused to compromise his art to sell it. His friends worried, for he began losing money rapidly. He was not a business-man. Although he had made large sums he was generous with the less fortunate, and spent money without any thought of the future. Collis Huntington, aware of his friend's plight, deeded him an 80-acre ranch in California's Capay Valley, which was leased to bring a needed income. Then, in the 1890s, Watkins' sight began to fail, he was plagued by poor health, and forced to curtail his work. After he had to abandon a lucrative commission to photograph the country estate of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the Capay ranch became a home for Frances Watkins and their two children, Julia and Collis P., while Carleton stayed in San Francisco, attempting, with the help of assistants, to continue making and selling prints of his photographs.
Aware of the historical importance of his collection which included rare daguerreotypes of early California people and scenes, and represented the work of most photographers of the West, he arranged with Stanford University for its preservation. On Sunday, April 15, 1906, a friend who was cataloguing his holdings (for Watkins was almost totally blind by then) was packing them for shipment. Three days later, April 18th, before anything could be sent away, San Francisco's great earthquake struck, and it its wake, the devastating fire which swept through that part of the city where Watkins' gallery stood. Nearly all of his life's work was destroyed. In shock, ailing, and broken in spirit over this second total loss of his oeuvres, he went to live on the Capay ranch.
His health and eyesight continued to worsen. Unable to find inspiration for living from the world of nature which had sustained him, for it now existed only in his mind's eye, he turned inward. In 1909 his family had him declared incompetent, and his daughter Julia, then thirty-five, became his guardian. By the next year his condition had deteriorated so greatly, he was examined by two mental health physicians who recommended confinement in the Napa State Hospital. There he would remain for six and a half years. According to his medical report, his health declined yet further as a result of Bright's disease, blood-poisoning from a shoulder infection, edema of the lungs, and finally, "General Pneumonia."
On June 23, 1916, Carleton Watkins, the master landscape photographer of his time, whose candid expression of his own profound experience in nature set a high aesthetic standard for those who followed; who blazed the way for the use of the camera in photojournalism and as a tool to document history, died at seven o'clock that evening. Three days later, he was buried on the hospital grounds.
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