In today’s terms of photography, digital or even analog, it is hard to imagine what Carleton Watkins endured to make photographs – loading up a team of mules with nearly a ton of photographic equipment including a mobile darkroom tent, a dangerous assortment of flammable chemicals, and an enormous custom-built camera that produced “mammoth” 18 x 22-inch glass-plate negatives. Dust and grit could easily ruin a day’s work as the plates were coated, exposed for up to an hour, and developed. Water had to be carried great distances. The sun warped and shrank camera parts. If photography were this cumbersome still, there would not be the gluttony of images we are subject to today.
There is good reason that the New York Times declared in 1862 that, “as specimens of the photographic art they are unequaled.” I think that praise still holds true today even though the photographs will be perceived to many as too “old fashioned” to consider that they still hold as pioneers in establishing the language of contemporary landscape photography.
The Stanford Albums are made up of three unique albums of Watkins’s work which were left to the university by Timothy Hopkins: Photographs of the Yosemite Valley (1861 and 1865–66), Photographs of the Pacific Coast (1862–76), and Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon (1867 and 1870). This book is made up of a selection of large plate reproductions 25cm by 32cm, beautifully printed to mimic their original chocolate/purple tonalities. A back section of small reproductions, also well printed and large enough to enjoy on their own, show all 156 mammoth plates from the three albums.
Throughout his career, Watkins documented the remote American West, generating more than 7,000 photographs of its most majestic wilderness sites as well as the dramatic transformation of isolated territories caused by logging and mining industries. His photographs won awards throughout the United States and abroad. With his early success, he established a gallery in San Francisco on prestigious Montgomery Street in 1861.
Watkins’s fortunes took a turn with the 1874 failure of the Bank of California and the resulting economic panic. Heavily in debt at the time, Watkins had to declare bankruptcy and lost both his gallery and the majority of his negatives to a competitor.
Watkins rebuilt his inventory, continuing to travel and work into the 1890s, but never recovered financially. At one point he and his family lived in a rail car in Oakland. Watkins’s health also declined, and by 1903 he was nearly blind. If that weren’t tragic enough, the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed his studio and his life’s work, and he never got over the shock. His family eventually had him committed to Napa State Hospital. He died there in 1916. This publication and recent exhibition of The Stanford Albums is testament to his sweat and brilliance.
Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums
Stanford/Cantor Art Center, 2014