Carleton E. Watkins

(Oneonta, New York, 1829 - 1916)

North America, American

Carleton Watkins’ award-winning photographs of California’s Yosemite Valley earned the artist international acclaim and a place in history as a pioneer of outdoor photography. As a young man, Watkins moved to Northern California from upstate New York in the midst of the gold rush. Although he did not strike it rich in precious metals, Watkins happened into a job as a camera operator for an established San Francisco studio photographer around 1854. He opened his own business in 1858, earning an income by photographing for courts of law, mining companies and magazines. Landscapes became the artist’s preferred subject, and in July 1861 he made his first trip to the Yosemite Valley, bringing with him both a stereoscopic camera and a custom-made camera using 18x22-inch glass negatives. With his cameras, tripods, glass plates and a darkroom tent and supplies, Watkins’ photographic expedition required a dozen mules. This trip resulted in 30 mammoth plates and 100 stereoscopic negatives, producing striking landscape photographs that helped persuade the United States Congress to set aside the land that would one day become Yosemite National Park in 1864. Watkins visited Yosemite again in 1865-66 and between 1878 and 1881. Overall, he took around 200 mammoth plate photographs and 500 stereoview images. Although the artist’s Yosemite photographs brought him the most fame, he also documented the city of San Francisco, mining and railroad scenes, and Western landscapes in California, Oregon, Arizona and Utah

Watkins’ photographs garnered attention worldwide. He exhibited his prints at the Goupil Art Gallery in New York in 1862 and published his book Yo-semite Valley: Photographic Views of the Falls and Valley that same year. He won medals at the 1867 Paris International Exposition and the 1873 Vienna Exposition, and exhibited in the 1873 Chilean and Philadelphia Expositions. In 1865, an 8,500-foot peak in Yosemite was named in his honor.

Watkins’ later years were affected by bankruptcy, natural disaster and ill health. He opened his Yosemite Art Gallery in 1871, only to lose the business and all of his negatives to creditors during an economic downturn in 1875. Over the next ten years Watkins revisited sites in order to photograph the scenes from his lost negatives. By the mid-1890s, his deteriorating health and eyesight made work difficult. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed Watkins’ studio and remaining negatives. In 1910 the artist was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane, where he lived until his death at age 87.

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