03
Jan
09

Exhibition: ‘Dialogue among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Exhibition dates: 14th October 2008 – 1st March 2009

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Carleton Watkins. "Yosemite Valley from the Best General View" No.2. 1866

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Carleton Watkins
Yosemite Valley from the Best General View No.2
1866

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Carleton Watkins was a master photographer, craftsman, technician and, above all, a refined artist. The structural cadences of his compositions, like the best music, are superb. Within his photographs he creates a visual dialogue that sustains pertinent inquiry by the viewer  – the look! see! – that has lasted centuries, as all great art does. Today his photographs are as clearly seen, as incisive of mind, as when they were first produced. They delight.

From the documentary photographs of mining settlements to the images of Yosemite; from the stereographs of cities to the gardens of the rich and famous; from the photographs of untouched interior America to the images of the Monterey Peninsula Watkins photographs are sharply observed renditions of a reality placed before the lens of his giant plate camera.

Like all great artists his eye is unique. His use angle, height and placement of the camera is reinforced by his understanding of the balance of light and shade, the construction of planes within the image and the spatial relationships that could be achieved within the frame (at the same time we note that the artist Cezanne was also investigating the deconstruction of traditional landscape perspectives within the image frame). His work reminds me of the photographs of the great French photographer Eugene Atget: both men understood how best to place the camera to achieve the outcome they wanted so that the photographs became imprinted with their signature, images that nobody else could have taken. Today we recognize both men as masters of photography for this very fact. The images they took raise them above the rank and file photographer because of the care and understanding they took in the decisions they made in the exposure of the negative.

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Carleton Watkins. "The Dalles, Extremes of High & Low Water, 92 ft" 1883

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Carleton Watkins
The Dalles, Extremes of High & Low Water, 92 ft
1883

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Eugene Atget (French, 1857 - 1927) 'Parc de Saint Cloud' 1904

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Eugene Atget
Saint Cloud
1904

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As a precursor to modernism in photography Watkins does not have peer at this time. His photographs preempt the 20th century modernist work of Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz, his Monterey and Yosemite photographs the work of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and in his Japanese influences the work of Minor White. Even today at the exhibition by Andreas Gursky at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne there is a colour work of a body of water (see below: ‘Rhein’ 1996) that closely reflects the structure of Watkins ‘View on the Calloway Canal, near Poso Creek, Kern County’ 1887, even though the subject matter of Gursky’s image is a simulacra of an implied reality, whereas Watkins work “served as evidence in a water rights lawsuit that eventually resulted in a decisive court ruling that prevented newcomers from diverting water from existing landowners.”1

Watkins cadence as a sentient being will endure in the choices he made in the photographs he exposed. His tempo, his innate ability to place the camera, his understanding of the light and shade, texture, environment, depth of field and feeling make this artist one that all aspiring artists – no, all human beings – should study.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Carleton Watkins. "Cypress Tree at Point Lobos, Monterey County" 1883 - 1885

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Carleton Watkins
‘Cypress Tree at Point Lobos, Monterey County’
1883 – 1885

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Carleton Watkins. "View on the Calloway Canal, near Poso Creek, Kern County" 1887

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Carleton Watkins
‘View on the Calloway Canal, near Poso Creek, Kern County’
1887

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Andreas Gursky
‘Rhein II’
1996

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1. For more information see the J. Paul Getty web page about this image.

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The J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, California 90049

Opening hours:
Tues – Friday 10 – 5.30pm
Saturday 10 – 9pm
Sunday 10 – 9pm
Monday closed

The J. Paul Getty Museum website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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