Carleton Watkins is well-known as a 19th-century photographer, but is little thought of as an important artist. Major scholarly works on American art often skip all mention of him or consider him as a regional photographer. He’s regularly excluded from permanent collection installations, even at museums with deep Watkins holdings. There is no Watkins biography. (His friend and rival Eadweard Muybridge is the subject of at least four.)
But now both independent publishers and deep-pocketed institutions are providing us with a fuller measure of Watkins’ career, and in so doing are providing us with a better understanding of Watkins’ importance. First, collector and digital archivist Steve Heselton launched careletonwatkins.org, an indispensible online repository with JPEGs of nearly all of Watkins’ known stereoviews. (The website also keeps a list of what it doesn’t have, even if what it doesn’t have may not exist.) It’s one of the best and easiest-to-use art history sites on the internet.
Now the Getty has published “Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs,” an eight-and-a-half-pound, 608-page magnum opus of nearly all the 1,300 mammoth-plate pictures (defined as a photograph made with a camera that exposes collodion negatives about 18-by-22 inches in size) that Watkins made between 1858 and 1891. The majority of these pictures survive in only one print. (The book also includes dozens of pictures Watkins made with a slightly smaller-than-mammoth camera of his own design.) Before now, only 300 Watkins mammoth plates had been previously published. [Book cover image: Watkins, Agassiz Column and Yosemite Falls from Union Point, 1878-81. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.]
“Watkins” was edited by former Getty photography curator Weston Naef and by San Francisco-based historian Christine Hult-Lewis. Other contributors include Getty research associate Michael Hargraves, Bancroft Library curator Jack von Euw and Huntington Library curator Jennifer A. Watts. In the 18 years since this project was first conceived in 1993, it was supported by an unusually long list of Getty administrators. Former Getty Museum director Michael Brand deserves special credit for supporting the project through a particularly challenging time at the Getty. [Image: Watkins, River View, Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, 1861. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.]
“Watkins” is the rare piece of scholarship that takes a known figure — in the last decade Watkins has been the subject of a significant exhibition at the Getty and a major SFMOMA retrospective that traveled to the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — and substantially alters our understanding of him. The result, especially when combined with the Heselton’s digital archive of Watkins stereographs, is a revelation: A strong argument that Watkins is more than a familiar photographer, he was the first great all-American artist. More on that in a minute.
The rise of Watkins through the ranks of American art is an unlikely story. While Watkins was born in the East — in Oneonta, New York in 1829 — he was little influenced by (and perhaps not even aware of) Eastern tastes for the sort of romantic, sometimes fantastical art being made by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, or even Matthew Brady, who famously rearranged his Civil War battlefield pictures to imbue them with greater drama. Watkins stayed in New York just long enough for a boyhood friend named Collis Huntington to become an ambitious shopkeeper. When Huntington and his wife thought that they might strike it rich in California, where the Gold Rush was in full bloom, they apparently encouraged Watkins to travel with them. He did: The new publication reveals that Watkins was in Butte County, California by 1851. [Image: Watkins, Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View,” 1866. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.]
Watkins worked for Huntington in Sacramento before making an 1852 trip to Philadelphia and New York before returning to the West. It would be the only trip he took back East after he moved to California. Sometime in the mid-1850s, Watkins worked in a San Francisco gallery run by photographer Robert Vance and learned how to take pictures. By 1858 he was working on his own. It was a good move: An 1862 show at New York’s Goupil Gallery made his name in the East. Watkins was prolific through nearly 40 years of typically Californian booms and busts before deteriorating eyesight cost him his career in the mid-1890s. In 1906 the young Stanford University had agreed to acquire Watkins’ archive, but just before the school’s representatives were to arrive to pick up the material from Watkins’ San Francisco studio, the 1906 earthquake and fire hit and destroyed all of it. Watkins died in 1916, alone, in the Napa (Calif.) State Hospital for the Insane.
Watkins was not completely forgotten, but he was not substantially remembered, either. It was mostly due to the efforts of art historian Peter Palmquist and Naef that Watkins began his rise into photography history in the 1970s. Naef and future Getty Trust president Jim Wood organized an important exhibition on landscape photography in the American West for the Metropolitan and the Albright-Knox in 1975, a show that pushed Watkins into the spotlight. Eight years later, Palmquist and Martha A. Sandweiss organized the first major Watkins retrospective for the Amon Carter Museum, an exhibit that broadened the then-prevailing view of Watkins as a mere landscape photographer. In 1984, the Getty Museum created a photography department and began to collect and exhibit Watkins aggressively, eventually setting the auction record for the artist. In 1999, SFMOMA curator Douglas Nickel’s Watkins retrospective, a show that was heavy on photographs of beautiful views of the American West, exactly the sort of images Naef had acquired for the Getty. The SFMOMA exhibition, three Getty exhibitions in the 1990s and 2000s and the Getty’s flood of Watkins acquisitions celebrated the artist as a photographer of unspoiled, beautiful Western views. [Image: Watkins, Devil’s Slide, Weber Canyon, Utah Territory, 1873. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.]
That’s a good thing; it’s an important part of why Watkins is great. For obvious reasons, those are the most-available pictures: Watkins and other publishers produced numerous copies because people bought them. Pictures of Mariposa Grove’s giant trees, of Yosemite Valley, of the California coast and of the rugged Oregon landscape reveal Watkins’ masterful compositional skills — few if any 19th-century American painters were his equal — and it was those works that finally established Watkins as the greatest American photographer of the pre-modern era. America had never seen anything like the pictures Watkins took of the new American landscape, the West, the land recently won in the Mexican-American War and toward which so many Easterners were flocking in search of land and riches.
But because so much more is given its first public viewing in “Watkins” — about 1,000 of these images have never been published before — the book is our fullest view to date of the artist and his accomplishment, and thus a landmark achievement that reveals Watkins as the first great all-American artist. [Image: Watkins, Consolidated Virginia and California Mining Company, Storey County, Nevada, 1876. Collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Via Calisphere.]
That doesn’t mean that there were not great artists in America before or contemporary to Watkins, just that they were Europe-trained (Gilbert Stuart, for example, was schooled in Scotland and emerged as a skilled portrait painter in England before returning to what was becoming the United States) or were substantially informed by European art (Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church). Watkins’s Gilded Age peers, even Westerners such as George Caleb Bingham, typically went to Europe to learn something to bring home. Watkins never traveled to Europe and while his remarkable sense of how to compose a picture must have come from somewhere (right?), he is not known to have seen an Old Master painting. Nor did Watkins seem to have made art informed by the Eastern painters he met out West: Naef, Wood and historian Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock have persuasively argued that Watkins didn’t take tricks from Hudson River or Western painters he knew personally, men such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, but that they borrowed from him.
In Watkins’s time, and for at least a century thereafter, the American landscape was the great story of American Art. Landscape has been to American art what Christianity was to European art: Subject, motivator, and a source of wealth that both motivated and paid for art. Watkins’s most significant artistic contribution was to re-make the American landscape as a subject — and to do so in a way that would impact the field for over a century. [Image: Watkins, Mount Shasta from the North, Siskiyou County, ca. 1867. Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.]
Perhaps in part because he was mostly unaware of dominant Eastern art-making trend Watkins was uninterested in the dewy, often treacly fantasia that suffused 19th-century American painting. Instead, Watkins showed the landscape as it was: Grand and beautiful, but also as a resource that was tapped. Watkins didn’t just show us beautiful views from high places, he showed the land being consumed by prospectors, being blown up and blown through by the railroads, and he showed the natural landscape being replaced by San Francisco and by the sort of massive farms that first made southern California famous. He showed the lumber mills that decimated the Western forests and the mines that tunneled underneath the mountains and the smelters that broke down the found ore. He showed how the wealthiest Westerners, Watkins’s mates in San Francisco’s famed Bohemian Club, lived on their country estates.
Watkins established the Western landscape, the real Western landscape and not the manifest-destiny-driven (or Humboldtian) fantasy of it, as the grand American thing, as the subject with which American art would have to grapple. Watkins’s insistence on showing the land as it was — not just its beauty but also the land as it was used, even defiled by extraction-driven industries such as timber, mining and agriculture — pointed the way toward truth in American art. It was Watkins who pioneered the American realism that gave rise to the crusading honesty of Lewis Hine, Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange, that led to the more nuanced revelations of the New Topographics photographers and the deadpan forwardness of Ed Ruscha. [Image: Watkins, Cape Horn near Celilo, Columbia River, Oregon, 1867. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]
Watkins’ example was so overpowering and so influenced America’s understanding of the Western landscape — his pictures were critical in helping establish Yosemite as the first national park — that straightforward representations of the West would never again suffice. (Exception that proves the rule: Ansel Adams, who revered Watkins’ work.) Most artists responded to Watkins’s West by moving away from naturalism: Painters such as Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe and Clyfford Still had to find new ways of making the land a subject of their work. (Watkins’s West, birthplace of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Donald Judd and Still, would later be the font from which much post-war American art would come.)
The new Getty book opens with photographs Watkins took in northern California in the late 1850s, pictures that Watkins took not as art or as views to be sold, but as pictures intended to be used as evidence in a court of law. (In hindsight, given American artists’ love of landscape and its role in our art, it seems fitting that Watkins got his start as a photographer of commercial real estate.) Watkins turned out to be very good at taking pictures that helped establish property lines where his commissioner wanted them to be. It would be easy to call these early pictures artless and evidentiary, but even in these early pictures you can see Watkins learning how to frame the landscape, to use diagonals, rocks and ridgelines as compositional elements. By the time he’s photographing smelting works in the mining town of New Almaden in the early 1860s, he’s making even dirty industry look pretty good. [Image: Watkins, Rock Bluffs, Columbia River, Oregon, ca. 1883. Collection of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley. Via Calisphere.]
Watkins quickly moved on toward landscape photography, in particular to Yosemite, where he took pictures that made his name in New York and in California, and where he emerged as a great artist. (It was these pictures, displayed at Goupil Gallery, that motivated Eastern painters such as Bierstadt to seek out a then-little-known Californian.) Watkins’s signature technique was implying scale by placing dramatic objects — trees, rocks – in the foreground of his pictures, objects that would print darker than the massive mountains or other landscape elements in the background.
The book also includes Watkins’s pictures of San Francisco, where he and Muybridge competed for artistic supremacy, and up the Pacific Coast, through redwood country, into Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. One of the book’s highlights is its presentation of Watkins’s California missions project, which Watts describes as “one of the earliest surviving examples of a large-format narrative series devoted to a single subject.” It’s these pictures that make clear Watkins’s versatility: He could have photographed the missions as big, beautiful monuments, the way he photographed the giant redwoods of the Pacific northwest. Instead he emphasized their loneliness in the harsh, empty, often desert landscape. The missions pictures establish Watkins as a pioneer of the photographic series, a particularly American genre that has been explored by Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Catherine Opie, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and dozens more. [Image: Watkins, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Monterey County, 1876-78. Collection of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.]
Later Watkins traveled south and took pictures of the massive agricultural estates that were beginning to transform the Southland, as well as of the oil derricks that would also transform the area and its economy. The book concludes with a chapter the presents 35 years worth of Watkins’s mining pictures and a chapter of delightfully random images, such as actor Frank Mayo posing as Davy Crockett.
At $195, “Watkins” is understandably priced for institutions and specialists. For art lovers seeking a better understanding of the West and our nation’s art, I can’t imagine a better value.
Nota bene: Check back tomorrow for part two of MAN’s post on trees. It will feature Robert Adams and Watkins.