Carleton Watkins is something of an enigma. Very few letters written in his own hand survive, leaving historians and early photography enthusiasts to fill in the gaps of his life and career. This makes some of the concrete details of his life surprisingly hard to pin down. According to various sources, he is either the oldest of eight children or the youngest of five. He arrived in San Francisco in 1851…or was it 1849? Accounts of his life are filled with hedges (“1855-61: Photographed New Idrea and New Almaden mines and Mission Santa Clara (according to Turill)’’ says one chronology) and guesses. Information presented as fact may not actually be, which can make writing an account of his life (my task as Project Archivist at California Historical Society) somewhat difficult.
His name, when placed next to that of his contemporary, Eadweard Muybridge, recedes. Muybridge, an Englishman whose motion studies of Leland Stanford’s horse Occident and moving zoopraxiscope are often credited as the beginning of motion pictures, seems to get all of the glory. Muybridge was a more colorful character. He changed his name several times, from Edward James Muggeridge to Edward Muygridge to Eadward Muybridge, in what seems to be the slow and iterative perfecting of how he would prefer to be known – as if he at all times had one eye fixed on his own greatness. At one point, he signed his photographs “Helios” (“Titan of the Sun”). He murdered his wife’s lover but was acquitted for what, at the time, was considered “justifiable homicide.”
Interestingly, the differences between the two artist’s statures seem to be archival matter. Watkins famously lost the contents of his San Francisco photography studio during the 1906 earthquake, just before he was to transfer the archive to Stanford University. Tyler Green writes, “In fact, just a week before the earthquake, a curator from the university had visited Watkins…in preparation for the university’s apparent acquisition of Watkins’s archives, the first time an American university or museum would recognize a photographer’s importance in such a way.” An amazing photograph exists showing Watkins as a bearded elderly man with a cane, suit, and top hat on the streets of San Francisco shortly after the earthquake, a massive cloud of smoke visible in the background.
Much of Watkins’ studio was lost, including the massive mammoth glass plates used to create his famous photographs of the Yosemite Valley and other parts of the West as it was being settled. Complicating the issue is the fact that, due to poor financial decisions earlier in his career, Watkins had lost many of his original negatives to a group of creditors which required him to re-shoot many of his original photographs (his “New Series” is the result of this). Watkins’ photographs are dispersed widely and held by numerous archives and private collectors around the country. Chief among these are the Bancroft Library, the Society of California Pioneers, and the California Historical Society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Muybridge did manage to eventually transfer his archive to Stanford. In fact, Leland Stanford – a railroad baron – was Muybridge’s greatest champion and supporter, much as Collis Huntington was Watkins’. Some have suggested that this matter of the photographers’ archives is the reason that Muybridge is better known today.
Rebecca Solnit, in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, also compares the two men. she writes, “In the 1860s and 1870s, landscape was a western business, but Watkins came first, and he stood alone.” Over the years, his subjects varied from mining camps to railroads and Spanish missions up and down the California coast. Watkins photographed famous artists, writers, and professors, native plants of California and the Southwest, and the newly built Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City – a great dome that looks like it recently descended from space.
Watkins’s gorgeous nature photographs still stun viewers and his style is almost instantly recognizable from his beautifully composed photographs with a certain discernible focus and clarity. This is even more amazing given the incredibly labor intensive process that created them and involved a team of mules, giant glass plates, and a travelling “dark room” in a covered wagon. Still, Solnit writes: “They are radiant with a mysterious serenity.”
The California Historical Society is making the entirety of its Watkins collection available for the first time, and its contents are revealed in a detailed finding aid. More selections will also soon be available on the CHS digital library. This work was made possible by Teaching California – a statewide initiative developed to bring primary sources into California’s classrooms. There are also a number of Watkins photographs (including a panorama of San Francisco) currently on view in our galleries as a part of the Boomtowns exhibition.