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


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) (attributed) 'Placer Mining Scene' c. 1852-55


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) (attributed)
Placer Mining Scene
c. 1852-55
Half-plate daguerreotype
4 x 5 in. (10.2 x 12.7 cm)



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 recognise 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.

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

Many thankx to the J. Paul Getty Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.


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


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
Yosemite Valley from the Best General View No.2
Albumen silver print
41 x 52.2 cm (16 1/8 x 20 9/16 in.)



Carleton Watkins had the ability to photograph a subject from the viewpoint that allowed the most information to be revealed about its contents. In this image, he captured what he considered the best features of Yosemite Valley: Bridalveil Falls, Cathedral Rock, Half Dome, and El Capitan. By positioning the camera so that the base of the slender tree appears to grow from the bottom edge of the picture, Watkins composed the photograph so that the canyon rim and the open space beyond it seem to intersect. Although he sacrificed the top of the tree, he was able to place the miniaturised Yosemite Falls at the visual centre of the picture. To alleviate the monotony of an empty sky, he added the clouds from a second negative. This image was taken while Watkins was working for the California Geological Survey. His two thousand pounds of equipment for the expedition, which included enough glass for over a hundred negatives, required a train of six mules. (Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website)


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


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
The Dalles, Extremes of High & Low Water, 92 ft


Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927) 'Saint Cloud' 1904


Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927)
Saint Cloud


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


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
Cypress Tree at Point Lobos, Monterey County
1883 – 1885



In 1850, at the age of 20, Carleton Watkins is believed to have arrived in California from New York via South America. He embarked on a life in photography that began auspiciously during the gold rush (which started in 1849) and ended abruptly with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire that destroyed his negatives. In between those historic moments, Watkins witnessed an era in which a recurring theme was the enormity of all things in the West. He photographed the expansive western landscape with its miles of coastline, vast natural resources, colossal trees, and the monoliths of the Yosemite Valley using an oversize mammoth-plate camera.

In the 1860s Watkins’s Yosemite photographs brought him fame from as far away as Paris, but a decade later he experienced a painful financial reversal. In the end, he died a pauper in 1916 after a life that brought him into dialogue with the many “giants” of his era. The photographs he left behind provide a unique personal vision of the birth and growth of California.


Mining Scenes and Daguerreotypes

After arriving in Sacramento in 1850, Watkins worked delivering supplies to the mines during the gold rush. As he traveled throughout the region, he applied his new photography skills by making daguerreotypes (an early photographic technique using silver-coated, polished copper plates). In 1852, he is believed to have taken up photography full time, making daguerreotypes as a freelance “outdoor man” for established studios in Sacramento, Marysville, and San Francisco.

Among the most important photographs created in California before about 1855 are more than 100 daguerreotypes of buildings and landscapes, the majority of which have not been attributed. Many represent the San Francisco Bay Area and the mother lode regions northeast of Sacramento, where Watkins lived from 1850 to 1853 – a fact that geographically positions him in the right place at the right time to have been their maker. This exhibition compares select daguerreotypes by unknown makers with securely identified photographs by Watkins. On the basis of style and other circumstantial evidence, it is possible that Watkins may have made many of the daguerreotypes.



Watkins first visited Yosemite Valley in the late 1850s and then returned to Yosemite several times in the 1860s and 70s with a new mammoth-plate camera designed to expose collodion-on-glass negatives that were 18-by-22 inches in size. With this equipment, he created the pictures that soon brought him international fame.

Watkins was not the only photographer who made images of Yosemite. Charles L. Weed and Eadweard Muybridge both followed Watkins into Yosemite, and the photographers often re-created one another’s views. This exhibition explores the visual dialogue in Yosemite between Watkins, Weed, Muybridge, and the unidentified camera operator for Thomas Houseworth and Company, who may have actually been Watkins.


Pacific Coast

Watkins was best known for his photographs of Yosemite, but he also took his camera to the silver mines of Nevada and Arizona, and up and down the Pacific coast. Throughout his career he applied his understanding of the elements of landscape as art. His early work with mining subjects proved to be excellent training for his eventual vision of landscape as a powerful counterbalance to the fragility of human existence. He harnessed the elements of visual form – line, shape, mass, outline, perspective, viewpoint, and light – to enliven often static motifs in nature.

Watkins photographed the Monterey Peninsula in the 1880s, recording the scenery in a continuously unfolding progression along Seventeen-Mile Drive, which began and ended at the Hotel Del Monte. Near the hotel, Watkins created this image of a native cypress – windblown and with its roots exposed – clinging to the side of a rocky cliff. Many distinguished photographers, among them Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, followed Watkins over the years along this same stretch of coast, photographing similar subjects.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


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


Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
View on the Calloway Canal, near Poso Creek, Kern County
Albumen silver print
37.5 x 53 cm (14 3/4 x 20 7/8 in.)



Andreas Gursky (German, b. 1955)
Rhein II


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



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

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5.30pm
Saturday 10am – 9pm
Sunday 10am – 9pm
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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96

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