Western Civilization

Occasionally, we glimpse a different vision: a Native American squatting beside a sweat house, a mound of mud, wood, and grass that radiates containment and secrecy; Chinese workers pausing with their wheelbarrows along the ramps of a mining concern. But these photographs retain no trace of their subjects' perspective or Watkins's own.

Watkins never managed to capitalize on the fame his pictures of Yosemite brought him. A combination of bad luck, poor business judgment, and great generosity kept him in precarious financial circumstances. At the age of 50, he married his 22-year-old assistant, who bore him a son and a daughter. But in his sixties, unable to pay rent, he lived with his family for 18 months in an abandoned railroad car. Watkins's last years were marred by increasing ill health and poverty. The San Francisco earthquake shattered not only his glass negatives but also his mental equilibrium. Four years later, he was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane, and his wife began calling herself a "widow" (never a good sign). He died in 1916 and was buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds.

Nature and technology locked in a neat two-step: Strait of Carquennes, From South Vallejo (1868–69)
photo courtesy of Gillman Paper Company Collection
Nature and technology locked in a neat two-step: Strait of Carquennes, From South Vallejo (1868–69)

The scant records he left behind do little to explain the mystery of his artistry, and his own comments on the matter were characteristically reticent. In 1873, a young photographer hired by the U.S. Geological Surveys came to him for guidance. Watkins, Hambourg notes, "received him 'very kindly.' He looked over his photographs and said, 'I have little advice to offer. You are a clean worker in which lies the great secret of photography.' "

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