FEW SHIFTS IN artistic fortune can top the story of Carleton Watkins, who died penniless, blind, and forgotten in a state hospital in Northern California in 1916 and is now almost universally regarded as among the giants of nineteenth-century photography. From the late 1850s to the beginning of the 1890s, Watkins traveled through California and the Northwest, photographing natural wonders, farmlands, railroads, mining operations, and the fast-growing city of San Francisco, where he made his home. His eclipse now looks like something out of a novel by Dreiser, with his own lack of business acumen exacerbated by the merciless pace of technological change and the loss of a lifetime’s work in the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906. His revival is a triumph of modernism’s open-minded spirit, fueled by the recognition that what some might dismiss as an antiquated photographic technology can in fact be the vehicle for a highly refined artistic expression.
What Watkins was after as he surveyed the natural and man-made wonders of nineteenth-century California was transparency, even plangency. He lugged his bulky equipment all over what in 1890 became Yosemite National Park. His Herculean labors yielded large-scale photographic prints that bring a pristine refinement to an inherently dramatic landscape. Turning the pages of this omnium gatherum of more than 1,200 of Watkins’s large-scale landscape photographs, we are in the presence of a creative personality who is both modest and voracious. Taken one by one, his photographs feel cool, deliberate, almost classical. Taken together, they compose a sprawling epic that reaches into nearly every aspect of nature and culture in the nineteenth-century American West.
Weston Naef, the curator emeritus of photography at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, has compiled Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs in collaboration with Christine Hult-Lewis, an independent scholar who lives in San Francisco. Their work represents the climax of an effort to give Watkins his rightful place in nineteenth-century photography that began a generation ago, when Naef, then a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885. In the ensuing decades, an ever-growing interest in the history of photography has brought more and more of Watkins’s work before the public. Pioneering collectors—among them Sam Wagstaff, who is best known today as Robert Mapplethorpe’s mentor and partner and whose collection is now at the Getty—immersed themselves in Watkins’s achievement. And treasures have been found hidden in plain sight in public institutions, including one spectacular group of four albums, containing sixty unknown Watkins images, which languished for years in New York’s Hispanic Society.
Along with the mammoth plate photographs, each approximately 18 by 22 inches, that Naef and Hult-Lewis have gathered together, Watkins produced thousands of stereo cardsas well as individual prints in other formats. But whatever the value of that body of work, there is no doubt that Watkins’s reputation as one of photography’s visionaries rests on the mammoth plate photographs that are the focus of Naef’s and Hult-Lewis’s study. These were made by Watkins directly from huge collodion negatives. There is no enlargement of the negatives, and none of the softening of effect that can result. Shapes, edges, and shadows have a preternatural clarity and power, as if the light that had shone on Yosemite Valley or the Pacific Ocean a century and a half ago had burnt directly into the photographic print.
Writing in the catalogue of Era of Exploration, Naef discerned in some of Watkins’s work “early examples of the pursuit of pure form.” At the time there was little about Watkins’s intentions that could be asserted with any certainty, aside from the obvious fact that he had meant to make a living documenting the California landscape. And if next to nothing was known about Watkins back then, the truth is that he remains, despite the slow accretion of biographical details, an elusive figure. Naef, a scrupulous scholar, is hesitant about making interpretive leaps. The book that he and Hult-Lewis have produced has all the elegance and rigor of a classic catalogue raisonné, a compilation of facts, meticulously arranged, allowing little room for speculative flights.
Of course anybody who has looked as long and hard at the work of an artist as Naef has at Watkins’s photographs will find it difficult not to share a few thoughts. And in a section entitled “Picturing the Topographical Landscape”—which includes some ravishing views of Lake Tahoe, especially one with a shipshape wooden cabin tucked in the Edenic landscape—Naef does hazard a few ideas about Watkins’s poetic inclinations. He writes of Watkins’s interest in creating “portraits of trees,” and sees this as perhaps having a parallel in the literary work of the naturalist John Muir, who was a friend. Naef calls our attention to a photograph of Lake Tahoe where the juxtaposition of a dead tree with a clutch of living trees is used for what he feels is its symbolic value. He sees in some of Watkins’s work in Yosemite an interest in “the interplay between the intimate and the grand.” He calls our attention to Watkins’s “great affection for small cubic structures.” And he flags a letter Watkins wrote to his wife on a trip to photograph the Colorado River, in which Watkins complains that the weather has eliminated all distinction between land and water, destroying, or so Naef seems to believe, precisely the clarity and lucidity that were the hallmarks of Watkins’s art.
Great photography is, to an almost extraordinary degree, the expression of a voracious curiosity. Whether he is studying the geology of Yosemite or the organization of mining camps, Watkins’s work is fueled by a magnificent watchfulness. If his contemporary Eadweard Muybridge was fascinated by tumult and movement, whether the cloud formations over Yosemite or the mechanics of animal locomotion, Watkins’s work is anti-kinetic, with the fast-changing world of nineteenth-century California caught as if in amber. Time stops. Eternity beckons.
While technological developments help to explain why Muybridge’s work looks different from Watkins’s sometimes slightly earlier explorations, differences in artistic sensibility cannot be overlooked. Naef seems to suggest—and I think he is right here—that Watkins brought to the often raw, roughshod, turbulent world of nineteenth-century California a new poise, an equilibrium. He knew painters and certainly knew paintings and counted as a highpoint of his career a gold medal he won at the Paris Exposition in 1867. He was very much aware of himself as an artist. His attentiveness and his deliberateness can suggest comparisons with some of the most self-consciously artful of modern photographers, especially Paul Strand and Edward Weston, who believed that pure form had a symbolic value.
What this immense volume brings to mind, more than anything else, is the four-volume study of the work of Eugène Atget that John Szarkowski assembled under the auspices of the Museum of Modern Art in the 1980s. Atget died in Paris a decade after Watkins died in California, and both were enigmatic figures whose encyclopedic photographic chronicles of the worlds in which they lived were nearly lost at the times of their deaths and have only grown in prestige as the years have past. Although Atget favored the close-up and Watkins the panorama, they were united in their feeling for the lyric possibilities of the documentary mode. They photographed contemporary developments (Parisian shop windows and California mining operations) and the remains of the past (medieval churches and Spanish missions). Working in the second half of the nineteenth-century, when the astringencies of naturalism were giving way to the emblems and enigmas of modernism, both men were committed naturalists who turned out to be instinctive, perhaps inadvertent, modernists.
As I turn the pages of Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs I find myself thinking of Walter Benjamin’s comment, in his “Little History of Photography,” that Atget had been said to photograph a Parisian street as if it were the scene of a crime. Benjamin suggested that Atget infused the inanimate with the sense of an animating human drama. And when I look at how Watkins photographed California—the geology of Yosemite, the crowded streets of San Francisco, the farmlands, the mines—I feel in these often de-populated vistas the energies and avidities of the men and women who saw California as the land of endless possibilities. Benjamin said that Atget removed “the makeup from reality.” That is true of Watkins, too.
This extraordinary volume is not only a portrait of a man’s work but also a portrait of a time and a place. The artist and his subjects are joined in a mysterious equation. I cannot exactly explain that equation, except to say that it has something to do with the artist becoming the sum of his subjects. As much as Atget is the spirit of nineteenth-century Paris, Watkins is the spirit of nineteenth-century California. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs is among the most important books ever devoted to the history of photography.
Jed Perl is art critic for The New Republic.