Categorized | Reviews

Carleton Watkins @ Cantor Arts Center

Cape Horn, Near Celilo, 1867
The lens is an instrument like the pencil or the brush, and photography is a process like drawing or engraving; for what the artist creates is the emotion and not the process.    –Louis Figuier, 1859 
Is this a 19th century photograph?  The answer, like so much in photography, depends on where  you stand. Or, more specifically, where you stand in relation to the history of photography.  Though Cape Horn, Near Celilo was created in 1867, it casts off virtually every device of the landscape tradition in western art developed over three previous centuries, then still very much in use in both photography and painting.  An 18 x 22-inch mammoth plate albumen print, it’s one of Watkins’ greatest pictures.  You can see it, along with more than 80 other masterpieces in Carleton Watkins – The Stanford Albums, a superb exhibition on view through August 17th at the Cantor Art Center
One of the themes sounded by this exhibition is that while Watkins (1829-1916) was clearly of his time, he was also ahead of it.  Cape Horn, perhaps more than any other image, establishes that fact.  In it we see no gradual recession leading us from the foreground to the horizon that we find in the traditional landscape form.  Instead we are confronted with a blunt, powerful trajectory moving us straight back to the vanishing point of the railroad tracks. In its bold geometry, juxtaposing the sublime beauty of the cliffs along the Columbia River Gorge with the steel tracks of American Manifest Destiny, Watkins’ masterpiece is more at


Mirror View of El Capitan Yosemite, 1865-66

home with the images of Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, Walker Evans and other modernist photographers of a half-century later. To be sure, Watkins was not alone. Like his contemporaries William Henry Jackson and T.H. O’Sullivan, he was finding a new way to come to terms pictorially with the vast bold dramatic forms of the western American landscape.

The selections in this exhibition are drawn from the three Watkins’ albums owned by the university: Photographs of the Pacific Coast, Photographs of the Yosemite Valley and Photographs of
the Columbia River and Oregon.  They compare favorably with past Watkins’ shows from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Getty, and the California State Library, Sacramento.  Curators Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell and George Philip LeBourdais and the many contributing writers have given us abundant and revealing documentation concerning the artist and his time, both in the exhibition itself, and in the beautifully produced 280-page catalog – a steal at $45. 
During Watkins’ time, mammoth plate albumen prints were usually presented and sold in albums. But over time these albums have more or less disintegrated, making it necessary to remove and preserve the prints separately. So although we can’t see the work in exactly the way Watkins intended, the show is organized to give us the continuity Watkins created for each album.The verisimilitude and beauty of these photographs make them the summa of the art of landscape photography up to that moment, and perhaps for all time. 
Born 1829 in Oneonta, New York, Watkins migrated to California in 1851. During the next half decade he worked in various photo studios, where he learned the recently invented wet-plate collodion process to make glass plate negatives printed on hand coated albumen paper.  In 1861 Watkins, operating his own studio in San Francisco, embarked on his first expedition to Yosemite where he produced his best known and first great

Tasayac, The Half Dome, Yosemite, 5000 ft., 1865-66

photographs. They were eventually exhibited in Paris, New York and Washington, inspiring President Lincoln and Congress to pass a law in 1864 to preserve Yosemite as a national park. The landscape painter Albert Bierstadt was so taken with Watkins’ photographs that he later came west to paint there. 

Watkins’ Yosemite views are marvels of compositional brilliance and clarity, making it all the more remarkable that, as far as is known, he never had any formal art training. Take, for instance, Mirror View of El Capitan, Yosemite, 1865-66. The cliff on the right and its reflection, sharply focused but soft in light brown tones, is in stark contrast to the silhouetted form of the downed tree at the lower left, a single bold diagonal rudely thrusting forward into our space.  It is a strikingly original composition. 

Like so many of Watkins’ views, there is a sense of tranquility present in the way he harmonizes his compositions with skillful use of aerial perspective, contrasting dark tones in the foreground with delicately subtle rendering of highlights above, and with an overall simplicity of line and form. Composition in landscape photography ultimately comes down to knowing where to stand and place the camera. In moving through the landscape the photographer seeks the one place where all the three dimensional elements come together in a singular, easy to read, two- dimensional view. The rightness of where Watkins chose to stand was unerring. 

The Wreck of the Viscata, 1868
Then, of course, there was the complicated business of creating the pictures.  The wet-plate collodion process was difficult to master, in part because the plate had to be coated and kept moist until developed in order not to lose its efficacy.  Watkins had to set up a darkroom tent wherever he was photographing, and in a matter of minutes carefully and evenly pour the light-sensitive collodion over a four-pound piece of glass, wait for it to partially harden, load it into the camera, go to whatever nearby location he planned to shoot, expose the negative, return to the darkroom (a tent and wagon), and develop it before it could dry.   
He composed each image by looking through the ground glass at the upside down subject. There were no exposure meters, but experienced practitioners knew how to expose by sight. On his second expedition to Yosemite in 1865 Watkins led a train of 12 mules carrying a total of 2,000 pounds of equipment including his 75-pound camera — all of which are visible in the photo above, The Wreck of the Viscata, 1868.
Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada Co., Cal

For the albumen print, usually made back in the studio, a thin piece of paper was coated with an emulsion of albumen (egg white) and silver salts rendering the paper light-sensitive. After being dried in the dark, the paper was placed in contact with the glass negative in a frame and exposed in the sun. It was then fixed and toned in gold chloride to alter the color and contrast to the dark brown and blue-black tones of the finished print.

Much of Watkins’ work, commissioned by mining, logging and railroad companies, documented the rapid expansion of modern industry throughout the west.  In 1871 he was commissioned to photograph the Malakoff Diggins, a hydraulic mining operation in Nevada County, California. Watkins, as usual, went far beyond the requirements of photographic documentation to produce some of his most striking images. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada Co., Cal. is a surreal scene of massive devastation. Giant arcing streams of water are aimed at a central point in the space just above a small group of insect-like human figures. The water is literally carving away a hillside. The mammoth plate print allows us to see these details in a way no other medium could. But Watkins chose to show us this rupturing event from a considerable distance, with horizontal layers of both disturbed and undisturbed landscape, yielding a picture of unexpected tranquility and beauty. As the distinguished photographer and scholar Robert Dawson states in his catalog essay, referring to another picture in the Malakoff Diggins series, “… he created art out of madness, beauty out of devastation, and an unforgettable image for all time.”
One of the albums, Photographs of the Pacific Coast, includes views of the California coast, of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands, Mount Shasta, and of the counties surrounding the Bay Area, taken between 1862 and 1876. Among the pictures from the Farallon Islands, Sugar Loaf Islands and Seal Rocks, Farallons, 1868-69 stands out as another singular and prophetic image. The bold frontal form of the rock rendered in refined hard and soft tones and textures predicts the work of Edward Weston and the f/64 group.
Sugar Loaf Islands and Seal Rocks, Farallons, 1868-69

In the early 1870’s he earned more awards and commissions but by the latter part of the decade his fortunes reversed. Watkins, never a good businessman, lost his studio to creditors, one of which reopened his studio with the photographer Isaiah Taber, who reprinted Watkins’s negatives and sold them under his own name.

Watkins regrouped, opening a new studio in San Francisco, starting a new series called Watkins’ New Series of Pacific Coast Views. He returned to Yosemite as well as other sites he had previously photographed. He worked on the Pacific coast from British Columbia to Southern California, and in other western states. Nevertheless for a number of years in the 1880’s he and his family were destitute, eventually saved by his friend and patron Collis P. Huntington, with the gift of a ranch in Yolo County.

In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake Watkins’s studio was destroyed along with his glass plate negatives and prints. He was destroyed as well, never recovering from the loss. In 1909 one of the greatest American artists of the nineteenth century was declared insane and committed to the Napa State Hospital where he died in 1916.

Watkins has certainly received his due with this show. The prints are among the best preserved I’ve ever seen, their quality is consistently outstanding. With so much finely rendered detail and tonal richness, we see the unparalleled beauty of the mammoth plate albumen process and what a great artist like Watkins could do with it.
“Carleton Watkins – The Stanford Albums” @ Cantor Art Center, Stanford University through August 17, 2014.  
About the Author:
Roger Vail is professor emeritus of photography at California State University, Sacramento.  His photographs are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and SFMOMA.
Photos: Lent by Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

One Response to “Carleton Watkins @ Cantor Arts Center”

  1. kilmer says:

    Watkins was liberated by the pearlescent images glowing on his ground glass, this coupled with a lack of formal art training, freed him to pursue his innate vision. His
    contact prints from a over a century ago seem to ask, “What have you learned”? Carlton Watkin’s work is clearly beacon but also a gauntlet.

    Photographers today are freed from the technical environment that Watkins thrived in, so we gorge on the empty calories of countless “amazing” or “awesome” pictures.

    In the last 24 hours a billion photographs have been added to our visual diet, yet how many nourish us? It seems with more we get less.


Vertical Slideshow

Email Subscription Request

You will receive a verification message once you submit this form.