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

 

Unknown maker, American, Attributed to Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) 'The Plaza, Lima, Peru' About 1852

 

Unknown maker, American, Attributed to Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
The Plaza, Lima, Peru
About 1852
Daguerreotype
Plate: 10.8 × 14cm (4 1/4 × 5 1/2 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

Watkins could have made this study of the Lima Cathedral on his return to California from New York via South America in 1852.

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) (attributed)
Placer Mining Scene
c. 1852-1855
Half-plate daguerreotype
4 x 5 in. (10.2 x 12.7cm)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

Watkins was persistently interested in the technical details of mining operations. Here a primitive Spanish ore mill is used to pulverise gold-bearing rock. Throughout his career Watkins earned income producing photographs that were used as sources for engraved illustrations, as this one was.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

Unknown maker, American, Attributed to Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) 'Engineering Camp, Copiapo, Chile' about 1852-1855

 

Unknown maker, American, Attributed to Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
Engineering Camp, Copiapo, Chile
About 1852-1855
Daguerreotype
Plate: 10.8 × 14cm (4 1/4 × 5 1/2 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

In 1852 Watkins went to New York, then returned to California the following spring aboard the SS Michael Angelo, which was loaded with tons of supplies destined for mining camps on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The vessel proceeded to the port of Caldera, Chile, where goods destined for the mines at Copiapó were unloaded. Miners and their various forms of shelter, such as the tent shown here in the landscape, were among Watkins’s favourite subjects.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916), Robert H. Vance (American, 1825-1876) 'Street Scene in La Rancheria, California' 1853-1855

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916), Robert H. Vance (American, 1825-1876)
Street Scene in La Rancheria, California
1853-1855
Daguerreotype, hand-coloured
8.3 × 11.4cm (3 1/4 × 4 1/2 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

The mining camp of La Rancherie was located near the fabled Sutter’s Mill in California, where gold was discovered in 1849. In the volatile gold-rush environment of prospectors, get-rich-quick dreams, and fly-by-night towns, an assembly of men in the foreground stood for the camera to immortalise their roles in the historical moment. La Rancherie stood out for its stability: it could boast a few buildings made of clapboard and some that were even painted. The illustrated hotel sign at upper left indicates a clientele that was not entirely literate and might rely on pictures to identify potential lodgings.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) '[Section Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove]' 1861

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
[Section Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove]
1861
Albumen silver print
43.2 × 52.1cm (17 × 20 1/2 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

Galen Clark, the figure in this photograph, was designated as the guardian of the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia about the time Abraham Lincoln ceded it to California in 1864. When this picture was made, Clark lived in a cabin (not pictured) nearby and maintained a rustic way station for visitors traveling to Yosemite Valley via the Mariposa Trail, which was developed in 1859.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

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
1866
Albumen silver print
41 x 52.2cm (16 1/8 x 20 9/16 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

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 (American, 1829-1916) 'Further Up the Valley. The Three Brothers, the highest, 3,830 ft.' 1866

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
Further Up the Valley. The Three Brothers, the highest, 3,830 ft.
1866
Albumen silver print
39.2 × 53.5cm (15 7/16 × 21 1/16 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

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.

 

Yosemite

Watkins first visited Yosemite Valley in the late 1850s and then returned to Yosemite several times in the 1860s and 1870s 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.

Anonymous. “Dialogue among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California,” on the J. Paul Getty Museum website 2008 [Online] Cited 09/06/2022

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) 'Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon' Negative 1867; print about 1881-1883

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon
Negative 1867; print about 1881-1883
Albumen silver print
40.5 × 52.3cm (15 15/16 × 20 9/16 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

In 1867 Carleton Watkins made an expedition to Oregon to obtain photographs of its geology, including the chain of extinct volcanic mountains that cap the coastal range. This view was made from the Washington side of the Columbia River. Even the evidence of a solitary boatman and his cargo does not disturb the landscape’s profound serenity, nor does his presence reveal the fact that cultivated farmland and an apple orchard existed nearby. Watkins’s image nonetheless portrays a man facing nature at its most grand and overwhelming. The man’s boat appears ready to launch into the still, glassy river, an act that will make an indelible imprint on the water’s pristine, boundless surface.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) '[Sugarloaf Islands at Fisherman's Bay, Farallon Islands]' About 1869

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
[Sugarloaf Islands at Fisherman’s Bay, Farallon Islands]
About 1869
Albumen silver print
41 × 54.3cm (16 1/8 × 21 3/8 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

Craggy rocks rise from a swirling, misty sea. Two seagulls punctuate the foreground, giving the scene a sense of scale. The uninhabited Sugarloaf Islands, part of the Farallon Island group, are located just north of San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean; in this photograph, they loom in the surf offshore like mysterious, petrified sea creatures. The length of the exposure softened the waves’ swirl into mist, adding to the impression of ancient, craggy mountaintops breaking through vaporous clouds.

Carleton Watkins frequently photographed the Farallon Islands. This particular area, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, includes 1,235 square miles of nearshore and offshore waters ranging from wetlands to deep-sea communities.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) 'View on Lake Tahoe' 1877

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
View on Lake Tahoe
1877
Albumen silver print
40.3 × 52.7cm (15 7/8 × 20 3/4 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

Standing between two sets of rails, Carleton Watkins photographed a busy pair of tracks above Carson Valley, Nevada. His shadow and that of his mammoth-plate camera indicate his precarious position on the steep grade in the foreground. A single engineer stands near the empty track curving around a mountain on the left, having already observed the train that heads away from the trestle on the right. Beneath these tracks, another steam engine pulling lumber on multiple flatbed cars makes its way around a sharp curve. The wood carried by these trains was an essential material for building the railroad and for operating steam engines. Lumber served as ties beneath the iron rails, telegraph poles lining the route, and fuel for wood-burning steam engines.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) 'Agassiz Rock and the Yosemite Falls, from Union Point' about 1878

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
Agassiz Rock and the Yosemite Falls, from Union Point
about 1878
Albumen silver print
54.4 × 39.2cm (21 7/16 × 15 7/16 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) '[Thompson's Seedless Grapes]' 1880

 

Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916)
[Thompson’s Seedless Grapes]
1880
Albumen silver print
37.6 × 55.7cm (14 13/16 × 21 15/16 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

In this image celebrating Kern County’s agricultural bounty, Carleton Watkins clearly defined each fresh grape, tooth-edged leaf, and woody twig. Real estate developers successfully used photographs of lush fields, ripe produce, and plentiful harvests as a means of advertising to boost Southern California’s economy. The grape bunches hanging from the tendrils of this vine represent the earliest cultivation of seedless grapes.

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
1883
Albumen silver print
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

At twenty, Carleton Watkins headed out to California to make his fortune. After working as a daguerreotype operator in San Jose, he established his own practice and soon made his first visit to the Yosemite Valley. There he made thirty mammoth plate and one hundred stereograph views that were among the first photographs of Yosemite seen in the East. Partly on the strength of Watkins’s photographs, President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1864 bill that declared the valley inviolable, thus paving the way for the National Parks system.

In 1865 Watkins became official photographer for the California State Geological Survey. He opened his own Yosemite Art Gallery in San Francisco two years later. The walls were lined with 18 x 22-inch prints in black walnut frames with gilt-edged mats. Such elegant presentation did not come cheap, and Watkins was accused of charging exorbitant prices. A poor businessman, he declared bankruptcy in 1874 and his negatives and gallery were sold to photographer Isaiah Taber, who began to publish Watkins’s images under his own name. Watkins, however, continued to photograph, and seven years later became manager of the Yosemite Art Gallery, then under different ownership. The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed the contents of his studio, which he had intended to preserve at Stanford University.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

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

 

Eugène Atget (French, 1857-1927)
Saint Cloud
1904
Albumen silver print

 

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
Albumen silver print
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

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
1887
Albumen silver print
37.5 x 53cm (14 3/4 x 20 7/8 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum Collection

 

 

The first photographs Watkins made along the Kern River 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. James Ben Ali Haggin, the defendant and Watkins’s client, had a series of irrigation canals that raised the price of land in Kern County. In this spare composition, made where present-day Poso Road crosses the Calloway Canal, Watkins devoted almost equal proportions to sky, land, and water.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website

 

 

Andreas Gursky (German, b. 1955)
Rhein II
1996

 

 

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

Opening hours:
Daily 10am – 5.30pm
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 art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor 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.

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