Born in Oneonta, New York, Carleton Watkins was a distinguished award winning nineteenth century photographer of the American West. Best known for his photographs of Yosemite, San Francisco, the Pacific Coast, Arizona and Nevada, it has been estimated that he produced tens of thousands of photographs of mines, railroads, cities, estates and landscapes during his lifetime.
It was by chance that Watkins became a photographer. Watkins initially headed west in 1851 due to the gold rush craze, but unfortunately was not successful in this venture. Watkins then moved to San Francisco, where he became a clerk in a bookstore. It was in 1854 that his life would change forever, when he became acquainted with R.H. Vance, a gallery owner who was looking for a temporary replacement for a photographer after his had suddenly quit. Watkins became that photographer, and even though he had no prior experience, he quickly became fascinated by the medium. It seemed as if Watkins had a natural talent for photography, and in 1856 he began working in San Jose as a portrait photographer for James M. Ford. Watkins who had previously used the daguerreotype process, was also inquisitive and exploratory about his new profession, and looked for ways to make improvements to processing techniques. He began to experiment with the ambrotype process, and developed a wet-collodion process for making glass plate negatives. It was at this time that Watkins also became a freelance photographer, generating most of his business from land disputes and photographs that he took as evidence in courtroom cases.
In 1860, Watkins was commissioned to photograph the Mariposa mining estate of Col. John C. Fremont, for the purposes of procuring future business ventures. An important stepping stone in Watkins' career, the photographs of the 44,000 acre estate, are his largest surviving body of work before 1861, and may have been one of the first opportunities Watkins had to use a large camera commercially.
Referring to himself as a "photographist", by 1861 Watkins had become known for his field and landscape photography. In July of that year, Watkins traveled to Yosemite, a place where he would be most remembered and recognized for photographing. It would also be the first time he traveled to the park with his mammoth plate camera, which held 18 X 22inch glass plate negatives. Along with his mammoth plates, he also brought his stereoscopic camera, a tent for a darkroom, glass plates, chemicals and tripods. It took twelve mules to carry all of this equipment. During this trip, he would produce thirty mammoth and one hundred stereoscopic negatives. It was through these photographs, that Watkins gained national attention, which led to President Lincoln signing a bill to help preserve Yosemite, and years later would help influence a decision to make Yosemite a national park. Over the next 20 years, Watkins would return to Yosemite for numerous trips including his role as lead photographer for the California State Geological Surveys and to consult with Yosemite commissioner, Frederick Law Olmstead with the preservation of Yosemite. In 1865, Mount Watkins in Yosemite would be named in his honor.
From 1863-1875, Watkins was at the height of his success. During this time he opened Yosemite Art Galleries in San Francisco, publishing photographs in albums and books, such as his, Yo-Semite Valley: Photographic View of the Falls and Valley and Josiah Whitney's Yosemite Book. He also continued photographing throughout California, Oregon and the Columbia River, and photographed the development of the Pacific Railroad in Utah. In 1867, he won the bronze medal for landscape photographs at the Paris International Exposition and the top award at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Industrial Exhibition in 1868. During this time, Watkins would also take photographs of trees and other botanical specimens for Professor Asa Gray of Harvard University.
Unfortunately in 1875, due to a national economic slump, Watkins lost his studio and his collections-known as the "Old Series", to I.W. Taber who under his own name, continued to print Watkins' negatives. Thus, Watkins started his, "New Series of Pacific Coast Views" series to not only document new sites, but some of his past favorites as well, hoping to recreate some of the work he had lost. Watkins traveled to Oregon, the Columbia River, the Washington Territory, and Victoria, British Columbia. He continued to photograph until the early 1890s, but had to stop due to his rapidly diminishing eyesight and crippling arthritis. Also burdened by finance troubles, Watkins would live his final years in poverty- relying on the financial support of friends, and when times were really difficult, living in an abandoned railcar with his family for 18 months. In 1906, he lost many of his photographs, negatives and stereo works when his studio burned down after the earthquake and fires in San Francisco. Devastated by his loss, Watkins was declared incompetent and in 1909, would live under his daughter's custody until 1910 when he was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. He would remain there until he died on June 23, 1916 at the age of 87, buried on the hospital grounds in an unmarked grave.
“Carlton Watkins, the Art of Perception. National Gallery of Art. n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. Retrieved from http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/watkinsbro.shtm
Friedel, Megan K. “Guide to the Carleton E. Watkins Photographs 1861-1885.” Northwest Digital Archives. 2007. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. Retrieved from http://nwda-db.wsulibs.wsu.edu/findaid/ark:/80444/xv99202
Hathaway, Bruce. “About Carleton Watkins.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/carleton-watkins.html
Nickel, Douglas R. Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception. San Francisco: H.N. Abrams, 1999.
Palmquist, Peter E. Carleton E. Watkins, Photographer of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.