Carleton Watkins: Into the West

I recently went to New York’s Metropolitan Museum to see several exhibits (most notably, El Greco, of whom your Meta-ist is very fond). But the exhibit I found most interesting was not the one I went to see but one I ducked into spontaneously: the nineteenth-century photographs of Carleton Watkins.

Watkins was a very early photographer of the American West. The exhibit featured Yosemite primarily. His photographs influenced then-president Abraham Lincoln to preserve the area. You can see the Met’s online collection of his photography here and there is also a website dedicated to his work:  http://www.carletonwatkins.org/index.php.

I include a sample so you can see the type of work he did. Two things about this strike me as someone interested in nineteenth-century archives. First, his work is not well known and seldom exhibited; indeed, according to carletonwatkins.org it had never been gathered together in one place prior to the Web site. This is such an example of how much the archives contain that is still underresearched. His work influenced the later Ansel Adams, a much better known (and more remunerated) nature photographer known for his work on Yosemite.Watkins, Merced River

But the second thing is simply the amazing amount of physical labor that went into developing the art of the American West. The exhibit included the heavy wooden cameras and information on the heavy plates of glass he toted up the mountains—in service to representations of them that resulted in their preservation. More tellingly, perhaps, it included the amount of hours—way into the double digits—that it took to travel from San Francisco to Yosemite, part of the way on roads, the west of the way in pure wilderness on pack mules. It reminded me of accounts of the architect Julia Morgan, another Bay area based artist (although of a later time), in going to William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. When she first began to consult regarding the architecture, the trip took nearly 2 full days. We tend to forget that roads had not been forged when the art that would define these areas began to be developed.

Perhaps this strikes me in Watkins’s case because photography has become nearly an effortless art form (or seemingly so) in the age of the selfie–and also, perhaps, because California in the mid-twentieth century was so associated with ease and abundance. It was good to be reminded of how much effort was expended in breaking the ground. In his life, the aftermath of his photographic career was very sad: a lot of his work was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he was penniless for a period of time, and is buried in an unmarked grave. He deserves many salutes for his beautiful work. So let this be one.

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