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Carleton Watkins

Text from John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

Carleton E. Watkins
American, 1829-1916

It is self evident that a truly radical invention is one that nobody knows how to use. In 1839 there were no photographers, only experimenters; ten years later every town of even modest pretensions had at least one daguerreotype gallery. This army of photographers had come from the ranks of a hundred trades and crafts, most of which were not even remotely related to the science or the art of photography.

Carleton E. Watkins was a clerk in a San Francisco department store when he was hired in 1854 by the daguerreotypist R. H. Vance to tend his gallery in San Jose', whose operator had unexpectedly quit. It was expected that Watkins would serve as little more than temporary caretaker, but within a week he had learned the rudiments of the craft and was kept on. Fourteen years later he was awarded the first prize for photographic landscapes at the Paris International Exposition. He remained an active photographer for half a century. In 1906, while he was negotiating for the sale of his life's work to Stanford University, his studio and collection were destroyed by the fire that followed the San Francisco earthquake.

Most ambitious photographers of the time moved freely from one promising subject to another, but Watkins did not travel far from California, where he spent summer after summer photographing Yosemite and the great trees of the Mariposa Grove on glass plates ranging in size up to 18 x 22 inches. On his early trips into Yosemite, a twelve mule train was required to carry Watkins's equipment.

Watkins was a student of his subjects...His surviving work provides a historic and scientific document of his time and place, a record that is clear, precise, detailed, and coherent.


 


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