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Carleton Watkins

Text from Maria Hambourg, introduction to "Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception"

"...We do not know what Watkins thought of such triumphs or, for that matter, what he thought of his more routine pictures, for he did not discuss his work in any form that has survived. From his letters, it is evident that he was not as comfortable expressing himself verbally as he was behind the camera or in the darkroom. His taste in literature leaned to the popular and the sentimental: favorites were Bret Harte's humorous sketches of local western color and Romantic poetry by the likes of Thomas Moore and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. These were not authors to help him articulate what he was doing.

The closest Watkins came to accounting for his exceptional talent was to discount everything personal he brought to his art. He understood, and explained in the most disarming way, that the only things that could be taught were simple skills. In 1873 when John Hillers, a photographer hired by the U.S. Geological Surveys, came to him for advice on photographing in the field under difficult conditions, Watkins received him "very kindly." He looked over his photographs and said, "I have little advice to offer. You are a clean worker in which lies the great secret of photography."

Certainly Watkins had learned from experience that the unforeseen impediment to achieving a successful image in the field was the grit that dusted the lens and pitted the tacky surface of his plates. Working with the daguerreotype had refined his sensitivity to delicate tonal and textural contrasts and to the signal importance of the angle and quality of light in the construction of spatial clarity. Transferring this vision to wet plates, he had become adept at recording and virtually triangulating landscapes for judicial review. Extending his scale to the mammoth plate, which required even more dexterous handling, Watkins proceeded with the scrupulous and deliberate manner of a master artisan. Employing several plates or several cameras, he challenged himself still further. He had created a graduated ladder of difficulty for himself, and, like many autodidacts, he could not see the difficulties he had overcome, just as he took for granted his broad shoulders, large hands, and resilient constitution.

Beyond these advantages, Watkins brought to his art great patience. He knew that nature's pace could not be forced, and that he might encourage greater success if he woke early and stayed long. He also brought measure, a balance of inbred reserve and generosity. Faced with minimal interest, he dispensed serious consideration, and before the grandiose he detected simpler truths. Treating nothing with disrespect and exaggerating nothing, Watkins created an art of modulation, the first in American photography.

Many precepts of Presbyterianism and Manifest Destiny that Watkins had absorbed in youth undergirded his mature art. Like these religions, he himself was a force of civilization, carving clarity and rational order out of the chaos of the world: his photographs show that he loved the steamer tethered at the river's edge, the mill, the mine, and the rails cutting into the wilderness. This carpenter's son relished a universe with mitered edges and snug, dovetailed corners; he found deep satisfaction in running fences and in simple, wooden buildings in good light. When he could collect some of these things and compose them into a coherent and orderly picture, he had effectively become the carpenter-creator of his own perfect universe. As he became more experienced in this abstract, geometric art, he could apply his reductive, constructive vision to more inchoate subjects."' On his best days he could distill quicksilver from falling water and hew diamonds from the rough.

In the service of this demanding vision, Watkins instinctively avoided wind, mist, and fog, which dissolved the clarity he needed to describe things with acuity and in the specific terms of their local color. To help isolate distinctions and heighten singularity, he also avoided flat light, preferring raking angles or dappled effects that picked out edges, drew planes taut, and emphasized certain details while neatly swallowing others. Equipped with such expressive aids, he created his remarkable orders of things.

In landscape, as in human life, meaning lies less in objects than in relations, the links that tic specific incidents and entities together as an event or a place. In grasping myriad related connections and recording them photographically, Watkins created an intelligible world that maps and illustrates mental activity mimicking the skeins of meaning our perceptions generate. His photographs awaken us to the exquisite pleasure of active seeing, inducing that conscious visual alertness we experience when viewing landscapes by Cezanne, for example. Only here the artist's mental calculations are not laid down in painted strokes, they merge diaphanously with the trees and dissolve on the surface of the objective world. Looking at the photograph, we think we see the true structure of nature, its orderly scaffolding and superb textures merely disclosed; it takes real, imaginative effort to recognize that no things in the picture nor the relations between them were self evident. Everything the slant of a shadow on fresh clapboards, the depth of the darkness in cracks in pine bark, the silkiness of the slightly shimmering water is the delicate trace of the artist's considered attention. Surely it was not modesty that made Watkins avoid the portraitist's lens, but a natural artist's tacit understanding that his true identity was everywhere imprinted in his greatest pictures.


 


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