Carleton E. Watkins, Photographs of American scenery

Reference: NLW Photograph Album 542

In 1909 when Sir John Williams donated his collection to the National Library of Wales, among the treasures was a large bound album of photographs of scenes in western America and its accompanying list of contents. The photographs were taken by one of the first photographers to travel around the American west using mammoth glass plates to capture the immense scenery. The album contains sixty-five photographs by Carleton E. Watkins, which are exceedingly rare in the United Kingdom.

Carleton E. Watkins

Carleton E. Watkins was born in New York in 1829, and moved to San Francisco around the beginning of the Gold Rush in 1851/2. From the age of twenty-five he was taken on as an apprentice in a portrait studio. He became interested in landscape photography and experimented with different methods of photography and found that wet-plate negatives were the most suitable for his work since numerous prints could be made from each negative.

Mammoth-sized negatives

Watkins also realised the immensity of the landscape would not be captured effectively enough with a normal camera, and so in 1861, he commissioned a special camera to be built with which he could make mammoth-sized negatives (ca. 45 x 55 cm.) and began to use it that year in a trip to what would become later the Yosemite National Park in the Sierrra Nevada Mountains, California. In fact his photographs in Yosemite contributed to the decision of the US Congress to set the area aside for public use and protection in 1864.

While on these trips, he generally used two or three cameras, mainly the mammoth and the stereoscopic. A stereoscopic camera produces two photographs, the same distance apart as eyes (ca. 5 cm.), so that each eye sees a different image. These stereoscopic photographs, when viewed through a special viewer, can give the impression of three dimensions.

Travelling with a camera

It was reported that in his 1861 expedition to Yosemite, Watkins took 'mammoth camera (about thirty inches on a side and at least three feet in length when extended), stereoscopic camera, tripod(s), dark tent, glass (stereo as well as mammoth size), chemicals and processing trays, numerous accessory photograph items, plus sufficient camping provisions for a sojourn of several weeks in the valley.' (Palmquist, p. 16).

This equipment had to be carried over precarious tracks, up mountains, along passes and down valleys in rough, relatively unexplored terrain, on the backs of mules. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine the struggle to balance the need to take as many glass plates as possible for photographing, and the lack of space and cumbersome nature of the mammoth plates themselves.

On his later journeys Watkins used the new rail system to his advantage, by producing publicity photographs for the railway companies in exchange for annual passes, and in 1873 he began travelling in two railroad cars, housing his equipment in one, and the animals needed to transport the party to the more remote locations to be photographed in another.

Watkins's career

Carleton Watkins' career "spanned more than fifty years, and his travels covered thousands of miles: from British Columbia in the north to the Mexican border on the south; westward to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco and eastward as far as Yellowstone." (In Focus: Carleton Watkins. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997. p, 7.)

Carleton Watkins' photographs were shown at popular international displays, such as the Paris International Exposition of 1867, where he won a medal for landscape photography. The photographs were on sale at these exhibitions, but at one hundred and fifty dollars per mammoth photograph, were quite expensive for the period.

Watkins' fortunes went through many states of flux. At times he was hailed as one of the greatest photographers of his time, at other times he was bankrupt and penniless, relying on friends and associates for assistance. Towards the end of his life Watkins eyesight had faded badly and, by 1897, was relying on his assistant Turrill and his son, Collis, for help. In 1906, there was a great earthquake and fire in San Francisco, in which Watkins lost all his remaining work. Three years later, Watkins was declared incompetent and the next year was committed to Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Watkins died in the mental hospital in 1916 and was buried in an unmarked grave in its grounds.

The National Library's photograph album

The album held at the National Library of Wales is thought to be the largest collection and also the only bound album of Watkins' photographs in the United Kingdom. The only other examples of his work in public archives in the United Kingdom are held in the Royal Geographical Society. These are unbound mammoth prints, mostly featuring views of Yosemite National Park and San Francisco.

The bulk of the photographs in the Library's collection are thought to have been taken between 1873 and 1883, dates arrived at by matching as accurately as possible the locations in the album to the dates Watkins is believed to have travelled to certain areas (Palmquist, pp. 199-202). It is difficult to trace the movements of Watkins as he kept few records and most of his photographs are undated. However, it is possible to some extent to date some of his journeys by using evidence in letters to his wife, Frankie, the biography written by his assistant Charles B. Turrill, and other correspondence with his friends and business associates, such as Collis Potter Huntington (who was involved with railways) and J. D. Whitney (who was a member of the California State Geological Survey).

Contents of the album

The photographs held by the National Library of Wales consist of sixty-five mammoth photographs bound in a hardback album covered with green leather. The album's content is quite varied, showing the landscape of the American west while it was still relatively unspoilt, interesting cityscapes and images of the newly developing railway system.

Mammoth photographs are the largest standard size of photograph, in sizes from 46 to 50 centimetres (18 to 20 inches); up to 50 to 61 centimetres (20 to 24 inches), they were popular in the 1860s and 1870s among landscape photographers as they were well suited to being displayed on walls or bound in an album, as these are.

Yosemite

There are around 16 photographs of Yosemite National Park and its surroundings. At the time, however, Yosemite was not a designated national park; it was only with the help of Watkins' photographs and campaigning that, in 1864, Yosemite was granted national park status by President Abraham Lincoln. Watkins began to photograph Yosemite in around 1861 and in the time between then and his death he is known to have visited Yosemite eight times. The photographs of Yosemite in the collection are mainly of the park's waterfalls, lakes and mountains.

One of the photographs, titled "Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley" (item 14) shows the mountain which was named after Carleton Watkins in 1865 by the members of the California State Geological Survey as recognition of his work for the organisation in helping to capture and map the landscape of California for the first time. There are also photographs of the "Mariposa Big Trees", a grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite national park. One of the most interesting of these is a felled tree, with steps up the side, so that it is possible to climb on top (Item 29, "The pavilion on the stumps"). Another photograph shows the "Mother of the Forest" tree (Item 1), which is quoted to be 321ft. high and 28ft. in diameter, with a woman standing next to the base of the tree. The photograph is 53.5 centimetres (21 inches) tall with the woman standing 5 centimetres high (around 2 inches). It is in photographs like these that Watkins uses perspective to illustrate the enormity of the landscape.

The photograph "Lake Tahoe from Tahoe City" (Item 60) is actually better known as "A Storm on Lake Tahoe", but the exposure on our photograph is much shorter than other copies, as the Lake looks tranquil and the dark clouds and silhouetted trees are not in evidence.

Cityscapes

The album also features five photographs taken from Watkins' series of Californian Missions, taken in around 1876, and several cityscapes featuring both Virginia City and Salt Lake City.

One of the two photographs of Salt Lake City (Items 55, 56) is especially interesting as it includes the foundations of the tabernacle of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) being built, which makes the photograph easier to date to around 1873. The photographs of Virginia City (Items 32-34) also can be dated roughly as the city was partially destroyed by fire in 1875 and the Fourth Ward School, built in 1876 is featured in the photographs.

Two of the photographs of Virginia City can be matched to form a panorama (Items 33,34). There is another, different panorama of Virginia City held at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (Plate 55 in Palmquist, 1983), which is believed to be taken in 1876, it is therefore possible the two sets were taken on the same visit to the city.

Railways and industrialisation

Views of the developing railroad industry are also interesting, often showing lumber yards (Item 58, "End of Flome at Caison"), workers, and snow sheds (Item 57, "Summit Station, C.P.R.R."). The photograph entitled "Cape Horn, C.P.R.R." is a wonderful example of the size of the early steam trains. The photograph shows a stationary steam train with passengers standing on the roof looking at the photographer. This comparison between the size of the passengers and the train is obvious and draws attention, but the size difference between the train and the open landscape to the right of the photograph shows the impressive scale of the countryside.

Other photographs showing industrialisation are of the "Blue Tent mines" and the "Blue Tent Ditch and Saw Mill", and the California saw mill (Items 21, 24-26). "River mining on the Tuolumne" (Item 47) shows dredgers along the river and the miners camp site alongside.

Natural features

The album also shows interesting natural features, including the Devils War Club (Item 40, "The Devils War Club, Witch Rocks, W.P.R.R.") and the Conglomerate rock formations (Item 48, "Conglomerate Amador Grande, Alpine Co."), the large cacti in Arizona (Item 36, "Cerens Gigantius, Arizona"), and a paper tree in the Mohave Desert (Item 50).

Watkins photographs in other collections

The Watkins photographs in the library's collection are very rare and important in the UK and even in the United States. There is only one other collection of Watkins's work in a public archive in the UK, which is held in London's Royal Geographical Society. They have 34 mammoth photographs, mounted onto card. Many collections of Watkins's photographs exist in the USA. One of the largest of them is at the J. Paul Getty Museum, comprising 1,400 photographs, one hundred and eighty-seven of which are mammoth prints like those held by the National Library.

Further reading and resources

  • Peter E. Palmquist, Carleton E. Watkins: photographer of the American west. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1983.
  • In Focus: Carleton Watkins. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1997.
  • A collection of photographs by Carleton E. Watkins at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley
  • Photographs of the Franciscan missions in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley