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Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception (Book Review)

Carleton Watkins: The art of perception

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) travelled from New York State to California as a young man alongside his slightly older family friend Collis Huntington. After some time in the West, Watkins took up a temporary position in a daguerreotypy studio and from that moment had found his calling… he would be a photographer.

Watkins had a mammoth camera made by a cabinetmaker to take 18 inch by 22 inch glass negatives and headed on the long and arduous trek to Yosemite where he produced mammoth plate photographs that were received with some acclaim. Although, the best of these Yosemite photographs were produced in the 1860s, while in his 30s as a more accomplished expert in the field. He went on to record much of the development of the West Coast including the gold rush and the ever-expanding railroads.

Watkins also produced a large number of stereoscopic photographic views through his career using a stereo camera, popular in the mid-to-late 1800s, and employed techniques like panorama and ‘putting a framed photograph on a wall’ that were quite novel.

So why have you probably not heard of Carleton Watkins? After all, he was the photographic rival to Edweard Muybridge. His friend Collis Huntington was to be one of the big four Robber Barons of the 19th Century railroads alongside Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker.

The answer is probably that Carleton Watkins left little evidence of his thinking behind in written words to share for posterity.

But he was also, in the end, a victim of fate. On the morning of 18 April, 1906 Carleton Watkins woke to the San Francisco earthquake and a studio where a lifetime work lay in broken glass plates and burning business records. He was approaching 70 and had just arranged for his life’s work to be bought by Stanford University. The post-earthquake fire deleted that work like a blunt force trauma. A half century of work. Gone.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that interest in Watkins resurfaced. Remember, he took those Yosemite photographs some 80 years before Ansel Adams trod the timbers into that same park to create his iconic images.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art produced Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception by Douglas R. Nickel as an exhibition book. It not only covers Watkins mammoth plate photographs but includes a large number of other stereoscope, panorama and card photographs.

I think if you take the time to look at the work of Carleton Watkins you’ll be amazed at the quality and detail of those photographs. In the mid-to-late 1800s photography was barely out of its cage and Watkins produced what could be described as perfect landscapes. They were technical masterpieces. Created under extreme difficulty and carried back precariously on the backs of donkeys.

It makes clear that photography is a medium that started out with perfection and seems to have been met by compromises in every direction. They already had it back in the day, right there.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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