Before Ansel Adams, There Was Carleton Watkins

by Sura Wood

A century earlier than Ansel Adams, photographer Carleton Watkins captured the vast grandeur of the American West.

Images Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Without benefit of artistic training or sophisticated 20th-century technology, Carleton Watkins took spectacular, large-scale, sepia-toned pictures—as big as 18” by 22”—with a custom-built camera that produced mammoth wet plate negatives. Hauling his photographic equipment, a portable darkroom and highly flammable chemicals 75 miles or more by mule team and railway to the outer reaches of the wilderness, Watkins documented territory from Yosemite Valley and the California Pacific Coast to Oregon. Although his inventory of negatives and prints at his San Francisco gallery was seized by creditors in 1874, and many more were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, the astonishing body of work that remains memorializes an untouched, 19th-century landscape.

Among Watkins’ surviving photographs are 156 images commissioned by Mollie Latham, the wife of a former governor of California, that were assembled in three albums and bequeathed to Stanford University in the 1920s: “Yosemite Valley” (1861 & 1865-66), “The Pacific Coast” (1862-76) and “The Columbia River and Oregon” (1866 & 1870). More than 70 images drawn from these collections, many of which have never been seen by the public, are currently on view in “Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums,” a new exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center.

“Looking at the albums as a whole gives us a window into how Watkins presented his work,” says exhibition curator Elizabeth Mitchell. “What may most surprise people, though, is how modern the pictures are. The way he makes these radical compositions, and takes advantage of the possibilities of the medium, is bold; though they date to a certain time, they feel like they could’ve been taken yesterday.”

Majestic photographs from the Yosemite album, each more breathtaking than the last, are laid out in sequence to mimic the experience of entering the valley through the Mariposa Grove trail, traveling along to Cathedral Rock and Half Dome, surrounded by nature’s gigantic monuments. In “Mirror View of the North Dome” and “Pompompasos/Three Brothers” (4,480 feet), peaks soar above and are reflected in a pristine lake; a pair of towering evergreens in the foreground frames “The Yosemite Falls.” In “The Lower Yosemite Falls,” emblematic of Watkins’ strong sense of composition, he positions the waterfall, which slashes a path through the mountain and pounds on boulders below, between a rough tree to the left and the smaller split tree at the right. The immensity of “Grizzly Giant,” a sequoia 33 feet in diameter, is given perspective by a tiny reptile clinging upside down to its ancient roots.

To people from the East Coast and Europe who hadn’t seen natural wonders on this scale, reports of colossal mountains and trees and great expanses of untamed terrain defied belief. (Watkins often provided statistics for verification.) “He was documenting the Eden of the

American West that many people didn’t believe existed,” explains Mitchell. “I think of him along with those early Turkish, English and French photographers who ventured into the Holy Land and photographed sights people had only read about or imagined and made them real.”

Watkins associated with some of the most prominent businessmen of his day. He photographed Leland Stanford’s family and created stereo panoramas from the top of Stanford’s San Francisco mansion as well as from the roofs of residences belonging to Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis Huntington. The explorer Colonel John Fremont was also one of his clients. Hired by the California Geological Survey as well as mining and land companies, Watkins documented the development of wild lands, the harnessing of natural resources and the expansion of the railroad. (It was through Huntington, his childhood friend, that he became the unofficial photographer for the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads.)

The show contains a mix of professional commissions and more poetic, personal works. The Pacific Coast album, for example, features stirring pictures that transport the viewer to a prehistoric era in primeval images such as “Sugar Loaf Islands and Seal Rocks/Farallons” (1868-69), where waves crash onto rocky outcroppings shrouded in an ethereal mist, and small birds and sea lions sun themselves near the water’s edge.

Photographs like these have a visceral impact, putting the viewer directly into the scene. This effect is due in part to their impressive size and because Watkins conceived of his expressive pictures as having the physical presence of a painting. Many consider his technical achievements—especially the high resolution of his images—under rugged conditions to be equal or superior to those produced by today’s high-end digital cameras.

“When you look at the crisp, distinctive features in his landscapes, it’s as if you’re looking at portraits of individuals,” notes Mitchell. “He brings some elements into sharp focus and allows others to fade away. He’s creating a specific sense of place.”

So how did this obscure individual from upstate New York, trained as a store clerk and operating on the outermost frontier of the country, devise such original and advanced photographs? “He was a born artist like Edouard Manet or Robert Frank,” says Mitchell. But despite public recognition of his gifts and some degree of financial success, Watkins’ lack of business savvy led to tragedy. Toward the end of his life, his family was living out of a rail car and he was destitute.

“His greatest legacy ishis mastery of the process, a combination of the chemistry and his superb eye, and how he moved photography into the realm of art long before people were comfortable thinking of it that way,” says Mitchell. “Every single photograph is a revelation. I knew it was going to be a privilege to have access to this many Watkins photographs but I had no idea that each one would be so overwhelming.”

Through Aug. 17

Cantor Arts Center

328 Lomita Dr., Stanford 650/723-3600