The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens has acquired a rare, intact Carleton Watkins album of the Sunny Slope farm and distillery. The album, which dates to the 1880s, includes 27 circular photographs that measure five inches in diameter on six-and-a-half-inch-square paper. Intact Watkins albums are rare, and a number of albums have been broken up in recent years. The Huntington album is, as far as I can tell, the only known intact album of Watkins’ circular prints.
“It’s so unusual, so rare,” Huntington photography curator Jennifer Watts told me. “Basically through neglect there may be some Watkins albums that are still out there. I can’t think of another album like this that I’ve seen. There’s certainly never been an example here going back many decades.”
The album was donated to the Huntington by the great-grandson of L. J. Rose, a Bavarian immigrant who developed Sunny Slope. According to the Lewis Publishing Co.’s 1899 “An Illustrated History of Los Angeles County, California,” Rose came to the United States with his family as a 12-year-old. His parents settled in New Orleans before moving up the Mississippi River to the Waterloo, Iowa area. As an adult, L.J. tried to make a go of farming in Iowa and later Missouri, but after a couple of devastating winters in 1858 he decided to try his luck in California. Rose was one of the first migrants to use the just-opened route west along the thirty-fifth parallel. The journey was so rough that Rose stopped for almost two years in Santa Fe, where he operated a hotel called “La Fonda” (which is unrelated to the La Fonda hotel in Santa Fe today).
When Rose finally reached California in 1860, he plowed the $14,000 he made from his hotel into a property about two miles from the San Gabriel Mission (which still stands). The estate eventually covered 2,000 acres, on which Rose planted fruit trees and grapes. In time, the Roses became some of the first Southern Californians to make wine and brandy. By the mid-to-late 1880s Sunny Slope was producing 750,000 gallons of wine and 125,000 gallons of brandy per year and the farm’s brands were considered among America’s finest. Like many self-made men of the era, Rose loved to raise and train horses, though it’s not clear if Rose kept his horses at Sunny Slope or at Rosemeade, his other, nearby estate, or at both. (Rosemeade which later gave its name to the Los Angeles suburb of Rosemead.) Many of Rose’s horses, such as “Stamboul,” were among the fastest and most valuable steeds in America.
The Sunny Slope estate wasn’t just a working farm and distillery, but a popular tourist attraction as well. This provides one possible reason the album exists: Watts told me that it was unclear if Rose commissioned the album from Watkins or if Watkins presented it as a gift in the hopes of drumming up future work or in the hopes of providing images to tourists who visited Sunny Slope.
“One of the things that intrigues me about this album is why,” Watts said. “If Watkins does it after 1880, which he must have, was he trying to get money and offered the ability to make a deluxe album for the family? Or did the Roses come to him and commission this? I can’t figure out the timing and why they’d do it.”
One possible reason is that it is marketing: The Rose family sold Sunny Slope to British investors for over $1 million in 1887, a sum equal to about $25 million today. It would not have been unusual for Watkins to have produced a series of photographs that a property-owner might present to prospective investors or buyers. (This was a function Watkins fulfilled for clients as early as the late 1850s.) Watkins is known to have been in Kern County, California in the late 1880s, but to date it is not known that he was as far south as San Gabriel in that period. However, as we’ll see in a minute, there are pictures in the album that wouldn’t seem to fit this potential use.
I saw the album last November before the Huntington formally acquired it. At just slightly longer than 10 inches square and an inch-and-a-half deep, the album was barely too big to fit into my hand. The pictures themselves are extraordinarily good and are in extraordinary condition. While Watkins’ so-called mammoth-plate pictures and his stereoviews have been extensively studied by historians, far less is known about the range and depth of Watkins’ production of medium-sized pictures such as cartes de visite and images of the size that make up the Sunny Slope album.
“The mammoths have been studied and are of interest for all sorts of reasons and they’re spectacular,” Watts said. “But I love this smaller size. These are so, so beautiful because of the way they’re vignetted and because of the way Watkins masked them and conceived them. They’re much more beautiful than what you see in a stereo format. Watkins composes these pictures in a way to use the circular format, compositions that you can’t use with a square format. In this album you see him really thinking through composition in the circular format.”
The pictures are part of Watkins’ investigation of what was a new landscape for him: For the first 20 years of his career, from the late 1850s through the late 1870s, Watkins photographed the dramatic landscapes of the Sierra Nevada and northern California. In the late 1870s Watkins began to travel to the southern half of California, particularly to Los Angeles and Kern counties, where he encountered land that was flat and open. The landscapes of the Southland presented new challenges: How to make this intensely horizontal landscape as visually engaging as the pictures he took elsewhere in the West? The Sunny Slope album, full of tight, layered compositions, seems to come after Watkins had solved that riddle. One particularly magnificent example is the picture of fields shown above, on the right. here Watkins juxtaposed a field of ground-hugging crops against a dark, distant orchard. Beyond the orchard lies a short hill, with taller foothills beyond. In the middle of the photograph these faint diagonal lines dramatically come together, compressed into about three-quarters of an inch of picture. [Clicking on any of the images in this post will expand them to actual size.]
Another superb image is the picture below and to the right, wherein Watkins uses a path, and the line of the back of a field to guide the viewer’s eye through the picture and ultimately to the San Gabriel Mountains, which rise faintly in the background.
Watkins more commonly addressed the question of the circular format by building compositions that press in from the edges of the circle toward the center of the picture. In paging through the album I noticed that in picture after picture, it doesn’t matter where the viewer’s eye starts, Watkins most often guides it toward the center of the picture. This is acutely different from his rectangular mammoth-plate pictures, which rarely guide the viewer toward a single point. In the photograph of a Sunny Slope farm building at left ,Watkins uses a path, lines of planting and building lines and shapes to guide the viewer to the horse and farm works in the upper left of the picture.
Taken as a whole, the Sunny Slope album presents a visual narrative of Rose and his farm, a kind of short-story told in pictures. Watkins starts the album with a photograph of Rose (above, right), followed by a still-life of a bouquet of roses. (Rose’s farm was also known for its bountiful rose garden.) This kind of punning would become common in art after cubism, but to see it here, at least 20 years before Picasso and Braque worked together, is striking.
The album then presents a narrative that starts with pictures of Rose’s farmhouse continues down a road to the fields, and then through the orchards. It continues through fields of a plant that is hard to identify, but that may be related to spirits as Watkins soon includes distillery buildings in his compositions. After the agricultural pictures, Watkins focuses on the distillery operation (complete with a picture of some men enjoying a drink at a shaded table) before concluding the album with a photograph of the ass of one of Rose’s horses, “Sir Guy.”
While the narrative is pretty straightforward and easy to follow, one picture is a particular puzzle: The next-to-last picture, slotted between two photographs of horses, is of a Native American family and the two huts in which they presumably lived or worked. Like other Western photographers, Watkins only rarely showed Native Americans or their homes in his pictures. And it’s hard to believe this picture would have been included in an album meant to market Sunny Slope to potential buyers.
Watts said that the Huntington has no immediate plans to display the album because of its fragility, but that all of the images in it will soon be available on the Huntington’s website.