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  • May 12, 2014

Carleton Watkins’s Mammoth Vision of Yosemite

Becky Harlan

I’ve never been to Yosemite National Park—I haven’t hiked to Half Dome or felt the spray of Bridalveil Fall—yet its views are familiar to me. For that, I have Carleton Watkins to thank. His is not a household name, but the landscapes he photographed are now recognized worldwide. Before the trails of our National Parks were laid, before the National Parks were even established, Watkins made photographs of Yosemite that would shape and protect the future of that wilderness.

Picture of Yosemite Falls
The Yosemite Falls 2634 ft.

Photography was only a little over 30 years old when he made his first trip to Yosemite in 1861. (He would later return in 1865, which is when he made the images that are featured in this post). Point-and-shoot cameras didn’t exist. 35mm film wasn’t even invented yet. That meant cameras were big and cumbersome. To better understand the process Watkins used to make his iconic images, I spoke with Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the curator of a Watkins exhibition currently on view Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. Mitchell explains that Watkins custom built a camera designed to hold 18” x 22” glass-plate negatives, which were even bigger than most other large-format negatives used at the time. Compared to the ease of working with 35mm film, which is made of emulsion-coated plastic and measures just over one inch in length, working with those aptly named “mammoth” glass plates was a huge undertaking.

Picture of Yosemite Valley
The Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View”

Part of the reason Watkins’s images still wow us is that his process was so labor intensive. “Now when we’re in Yosemite, we can whip out our smartphones and take high-quality photographs very easily. Watkins had to pack in a literal ton of equipment, at least on one of his trips, on mules. For Watkins, taking a photograph meant undertaking an incredible feat of physical endurance, of planning, of logistics,” says Mitchell.

In order to help the modern reader appreciate his process, I broke down Watkins’s procedure into four simplified steps:

1. Carry 2,000 pounds of equipment—the equivalent of two horses—including mammoth glass plates, flammable chemicals, and a makeshift darkroom, on mules through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

2. Make the glass plates photosensitive by coating them with said flammable chemicals in total darkness, being careful to keep all dust, pollen, and other matter off the plates. (Keep in mind Watkins was doing this in a makeshift darkroom in the wilderness).

3. Immediately put the light-sensitive glass plate into the camera in order to properly expose iconic vista.

4. Once exposed, process the negative with the appropriate chemicals to permanently fix the image onto the glass for future printing.

There was little room for error in this multi-step process. If a scene was overexposed or out of focus he would have to start with a fresh piece of glass. Watkins was able to print the negatives onto paper at a later time, but he had to be certain that he got the images he needed before leaving Yosemite—to change the camera angle in just one frame would require another expedition.

Picture of El Capitan
Mirror View of El Capitan, Yosemite

His finished prints were artfully composed, highly detailed, and masterfully printed, but most importantly, they made visible the vistas that were otherwise inaccessible to the average person. “He created an image of the American west for the world. His photographs were exhibited on the east coast, even in exhibitions in Europe. And this area of the world that people were absolutely fascinated by, they’d been reading about. He gave them a large scale visual record of it,” says Mitchell.

Picture of the Grizzly Giant, 33 ft. in diameter
Section of the Grizzly Giant, 33 ft. diameter

She explains that in addition to selling prints and having exhibitions, Watkins produced bound sets of photos. “That’s how the photographs that he took in 1861 reached Washington D.C. and came to the attention of this 38th American congress, and probably President Lincoln as well. That then inspired them to pass the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864 and protect the land for private use.”

Picture of Washington Column
Washington Column, 2082 ft., Yosemite

These days images of Yosemite and other National Parks are ubiquitous; some might even call them commonplace or cliché. As photographers Abelardo Morell and Peter Essick discussed in a recent conversation on Proof, it’s become a challenge to capture and communicate the splendor of a place that attracts millions of visitors each year. Watkins’s images have become a small part of the massive visual archive of Yosemite. Taken today, they might have even been lost in the hundreds of thousands of depictions. But his photographs will always be part of the reason that the Yosemite of the 1860’s is still recognizable to us in 2014, and that is quite the legacy.

Picture of the North Dome
Mirror View of the North Dome, Yosemite

The exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums is on view from April 23-August 17 at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center.

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Mitchelyn
    August 24, 2014

    Great contribution. I can picture the “then and now”.

  2. Janet
    May 14, 2014

    Awesome photos! And the work that went into them… amazing. What I would love to see is these photos next to photos taken at the exact same spot today. To see the “damage” we have done to make things easier on ourselves as sight seers. It would be interesting to see. Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful photos. they are beautiful!

  3. Daudi Wabera
    May 14, 2014

    Beautiful pictures!!! Awesome work by Bwana Watkins.

  4. Brett Jones
    May 13, 2014

    He is in my top ten skilled photographers though he is not my favorite

  5. Debbie
    May 13, 2014

    The gentleman by the Grizzly Giant is Galen Clark – 1865. He was one of several key players to the protection of the Mariposa Grove located at the south entrance to Yosemite.

    • Becky Harlan
      May 15, 2014

      Good question, Debbie! The curator of the exhibit, Elizabeth Mitchell, says that the man in the photo is “Galen Clark–the non-Native American who “discovered” the Mariposa Grove.” Thanks for asking!

  6. Martha Takayama
    May 13, 2014

    Heroic and splendid work. A national treasure.

  7. Steve Hopkins
    May 13, 2014

    Amazing. I went there in 1984 and these were taken nearly 120 years prior to that!

  8. Derek Bryant
    May 13, 2014

    Does anyone know if the man in the Section of the Grizzly Giant, 33 ft. diameter photo is Carleton Watkins himself?

  9. Adam
    May 13, 2014

    Ok, it was labor intensive, but he had allllll day to do that stuff. Also there weren’t tons of tourist and their kids and cars and strollers and all that other crap to distract him.

  10. Jim A. Beardsley
    May 13, 2014

    Though they may be seen on a much smaller scale than those pertaining to Yosemite, the multitude of publicly accessible images of Mission San Fernando (my workplace) are also “ubiquitous” and “commonplace.” Similarly, Carleton Watkins created the original c.1880 photographs of this Mission (as well as some of the best early pictures of Los Angeles) which provide invaluable historic context and perspective today. Unfortunately, much of Watkins’ pioneering work is now disseminated and exhibited sans proper credit. Thanks for publishing / posting such an excellent, thoughtful, and relevant article.

  11. Ellie Shoemaker
    May 13, 2014

    Great beautiful photos !!!

  12. Annemarie Dugan
    May 13, 2014

    Absolutely breathtaking. Every modern selfie-portrait-taker needs to be aware of this incredible photographic journey, and the back-breaking work it took to get these iconic images. We take so much for granted. Thanks for another stellar article, Becky.

  13. Donald J. Colby
    May 12, 2014

    Fantastic! I have dabbled a little in large format photography but never under the conditions that Watson faced.

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