One of the very few surviving pictures of Carleton Watkins shows the photographer as an old man, nearly blind, being helped away from the wreckage of his studio in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. For Watkins, the catastrophe, and the fires that followed, wiped out half a century of work-prints, albums, negatives, equipment, and records.
But the magnitude of this late calamity was more than matched by the splendor of his previous achievements. Over those 50 years, Watkins, an autodidact, had produced unparalleled photographs of the American West-images of astonishing elegance and razor-sharp modernity. Luckily, he sold many of them, and so they have come down to us. Did he think of himself as an artist? It's hard to say. His primary aim appears to have been documentation. Working frequently on commission for Harvard geologists, government surveyors, railroad companies, and mining concerns, he strove for a precise delineation of space and topography. Crystalline clarity and order were qualities he lent equally to logging camps, frontier towns, and the wonders of Yosemite.
Watkins was long ignored in standard photographic histories. For cognoscenti, this major show of almost 100 images, coming from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, expands their vision of his work beyond the boundaries of Yosemite. For others, it provides an introduction to his consummate grace in recording the 19th century's marriage of nature to industry.
Born in Oneonta, New York, in 1829, the son of a carpenter and innkeeper, Watkins caught the fever of the Gold Rush in his early twenties. He arrived in San Francisco in 1851 and found employment delivering hardware supplies to miners. Around 1854, probably by chance, he began working as a photographer.
At the time, rumors were circulating of a great natural wonder lying southeast of the city. Inspired perhaps by the sermons of Thomas Starr King, an early visitor, who spoke of the hidden valley's striking beauty, Watkins first traveled to Yosemite in 1861, carrying a huge camera specially made to accommodate "mammoth" (18-by-22-inch) plates, a stereo camera, darkroom material, and camping supplies on muleback.
Watkins's early photographs of Yosemite combine matter-of-factness and sublimity. They often include measurements in their titles-notations of a monumental cliff's height, or a gigantic tree's diameter-with the image providing vivid proof of the West's colossal dimensions. His portrait of Cathedral Rock-an outcropping of stone, frontally presented against a bare sky-is both a geological record and an image of impenetrable divinity. Holy Land analogies come to mind, and not merely because the landscapes of the Southwest and the Sinai are uncannily similar. An aura of transcendence suffuses these images and others of the rugged California coastline, with its mountains of volcanic rock rising from waves that have turned to mist through the negative's long time exposure. Watkins's gaze and the landscape it uncovers seem virginal-a vision of the world as it might have looked at the dawn of creation.
Photographing the same landscape some 70 years later, Ansel Adams pumped up the volume of nature's spectacular beauty considerably, and to lesser effect. Watkins liked big, blank skies; he preferred dawn's still air and calm illumination to Romantic effects of wind and cloud. His sense of understatement and leanly expressive grandeur make his work seem at once timeless and contemporary.
Watkins's photographs of Yosemite (to which he returned repeatedly throughout his career) found their way back East and to Europe, where they made him famous. In 1864, the photographs helped prompt Lincoln and Congress to pass legislation preserving Yosemite as a national park. Viewing these pictures back-to-back with the Met's concurrent Ingres exhibition, it was easy to imagine the stupendous effect they must have had in the hothouse salons of the Second Empire-opening up vast vistas of seemingly uninhabited, infinitely expansive space, amid the stifling layers of lace and corsets and the overstuffed upholstery.
Of course, as with 19th-century images of Palestine, this emptiness was an illusion that served powerful ideologies of expansion and conquest. People already lived in these places, though their presence was deemed inconvenient by many. The idea of uninhabited space, extending as far as the eye could see, was as much a psychological necessity to the 19th-century bourgeoisie, massed and jostled in increasingly crowded urban centers, as it is to today's readers of Outside magazine.
A sense of space is at the heart of Watkins's work. He made thousands of photographs for the stereoscope, a now-obsolete technology in which side-by-side images, viewed through a binocular device, gave the Victorian armchair traveler the illusion of three-dimensionality. Over and over, he strove to render nature's jumbled expanses composed and legible. His gaze worked in tandem with Manifest Destiny. Perfect vision was the first step in a three-part program: to see, to possess, to control. Railroad magnates, his major patrons and employers, commissioned him to photograph magnificent landscapes along the Columbia River. His eye followed the train tracks to oblivion.
So, as curators Douglas R. Nickel and Maria Morris Hambourg note in their excellent catalog, for Watkins there was no conflict in photographing the beauties of nature or the ravages of hydraulic mining. Nature and technology were locked in a neat two-step-each had its place in his orderly, peaceful universe. The shacks of his mining towns nestle on hillsides, bathed in a light as beatific as that which touched the cliffs of Yosemite. His flour mill fits as snugly on its spit of land, sandwiched between sky and river, as pieces of a puzzle joined by divine intention.
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.
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.' "
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.