Photography of Carleton Watkins

Old Plaza, circa 1880
The Plaza, Los Angeles, circa 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum

Carleton Watkins, whose images of 19th-century California are the stars of an exhibition at the Getty Museum, had a simple motto: to stand "where the view looks best." Weston Naef, the Getty's senior photography curator, calls Watkins "the greatest American photographer before Alfred Stieglitz....He was an artist in the very strictest sense of the word. He was probably the first American to show a purely photographic imagination — as opposed to a painterly imagination...."

For Naef, the exhibit represents decades of admiration for his subject. Watkins was probably the first to photograph Yosemite and his astounding images of the valley and the Mariposa Grove of big trees propelled the first federal protection of the Sierra Nevada wilderness.

Born in 1829 in Oneonta, New York, Watkins arrived in San Francisco in 1850 and was hired by childhood friend Collis P. Huntington (who later founded the Central Pacific Railroad) to deliver supplies to Gold Rush mines. After fire consumed Huntington's enterprise, Watkins worked as a carpenter and bookseller and began taking scenic daguerreotypes of the Mother Lode country. He moved to San Francisco and photographed the estates of the city's wealthy, making important contacts through Huntington and at social occasions in the home of Jessie Benton Fr�mont, writer and activist wife of the former U.S. Senator and general John C. Fr�mont.

Watkins accepted commissions to provide photos for court cases and clients such as the State Geological Survey, but it's his personal projects that display his abundant spirit of exploration. Watkins reached Yosemite via the Mariposa Trail for the first time in 1858-59 and returned many times. He had a San Francisco cabinet maker create a camera capable of accommodating glass plates as large as 18 inches by 22 inches. The amazingly detailed photographs made with the unique "mammoth plate" camera brought Watkins international renown. He used an enclosed wagon to transport hundreds of pounds of camera equipment, glass and chemicals needed to develop his glass plate negatives, sometimes pulled by mules and sometimes loaded on a rail flatcar. He traveled hard miles around California and the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, and ventured afar to destinations such as Yellowstone, Puget Sound, South America and the Arizona Territory outpost of Tombstone.

Watkins produced more than 1,100 mammoth-plate photographs, making him one of the 19th century's most prolific photographers. Some of his best-known images are panorama views of San Francisco in the 1860s and rare images of the crumbling California missions. He traveled by rail to southern California for the first time in 1876-77 and again in 1880-81 to photograph the burgeoning oil industry, agriculture, and other subjects.

Thompson's Seedless Grapes, Kern County 1880
Thompson's Seedless Grapes, Kern County 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum

The Los Angeles that Watkins visited would have seemed like a wild west boomtown (and part Mexican pueblo.) It was far from most evidence of civilization. H.H. Bancroft in "Bancroft's Guide For Travelers by Railway, Stage, and Steam Navigation" called Los Angeles:

The oldest and largest city of Southern California, having 5,614 inhabitants, many of whom are foreigners. It is situated in a narrow valley, about 22 miles from the sea, on the Los Angeles River. The city is rapidly growing in population and wealth, and the surrounding country abounds with extensive and flourishing vineyards, groves of oranges, lemons, olives, and other tropical fruits. Connected with San Francisco by steamer and railroad, via San Pedro�

In Los Angeles, Watkins continued to associate with influential people like Don Benito Wilson, a rancho owner and former mayor. Watkins, according to Naef, had an "ingrained sense of history" and made a point of photographing the historic plaza where Los Angeles was founded. It's not by accident that the stereograph contains elements that are symbols of the city's origins, including the old plaza church ( Our Lady the Queen of the Angels), Fort Moore Hill and the adobe home of former Californio leader Andres Pico. It's conceivable that Watkins would have encountered Pio Pico, California's last Mexican governor, sunning himself on the plaza.

Watkins' record of the state's historic Franciscan missions took him all over California, starting with Mission Dolores in San Francisco. His photograph of Mission San Fernando, Rey de España, is in the Getty show. While here he also photographed the beach in Santa Monica, locales in the San Gabriel Valley and Point Fermin lighthouse.

Beach and Bathing House at Santa Monica, 1880
Beach and Bathing House at Santa Monica, 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum

Though he achieved international fame and commercial and artistic success, Watkins' endured financial distress when his sight began to fail. In 1895-6 he lived with his wife and children in an abandoned railroad car, until Huntington deeded him a ranch in rural Yolo County. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, Watkins lost all of his glass-plate negatives, business records, archives, and personal papers. In 1910 he was committed to Napa State Hospital for the Insane. He died in poverty in 1916 and was buried in an unmarked grave. It was a tragic end for the artist who, according to the Getty, played a "dominant role in establishing an outdoor photographic tradition in California."

Says Naef, "his photographs were as perceptive as the words of a poet and they provide a unique personal vision of the birth and growth of California."

Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins runs at the Getty until March 1, 2009.

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