Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Carleton Watkins :: Yosemite Photographs

Did You Know :: Carleton Watkins’ Yosemite Photographs

Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) had virtually no practical photography experience during the Civil War, as did many of his contemporaries. In 1851, when he was twenty-one, Watkins left Oneonta, New York, for California, following the example of Collis P. Huntington, another Oneonta native who had moved to California to make his fortune. After a stint in Huntington's store in Sacramento, Watkins moved to San Francisco, where he chanced into an apprenticeship with the daguerreotypist Robert Vance. By 1858, Watkins had established an independent practice, photographing mining operations and land claims for financiers who were building their careers in the lap of the new state.

Watkins and his contemporaries Charles Leander Weed and Eadweard Muybridge labored under difficult conditions to produce enormous photographs of Yosemite that pushed the technological limits of the medium and mirrored the scale of the place beginning in the 1860s and continuing into the 1890s.

In 1861 Carleton Watkins made history when he hauled a huge box camera—custom-designed around the glass-plate negatives needed for large prints—into Yosemite. Once a shot was framed, the plate was coated with a light-sensitive emulsion, then exposed and developed on-site in a dark tent. It was a grueling process, in which a drop of sweat or a stray insect could ruin the image and hours of work. Watkins’s 1861 photographs were among the first in the world to be considered landscape art. Three years later, Weed took his own mammoth plate camera to Yosemite, but Watkins’s main competitor was Eadweard Muybridge. Often composed like landscape paintings, Muybridge’s Yosemite photographs differed stylistically from Watkins’s classically structured works. Muybridge also signed his negatives to avoid the piracy that plagued Watkins, whose prints were reissued without credit to the photographer. Together, these three men transformed photography as an art form and inspired generations of artists. Their legacy persists in Yosemite, which remains among the most photographed landscapes in the world.

In 1861, Watkins traveled with one of his patrons, Trenor Park, entrepreneur of the Mariposa gold mine, on a family excursion to Yosemite. Unknown to white settlers until 1849, the valley was twenty hours by stage and mule from San Francisco. But word spread fast at the Mariposa mine, and by 1858 there were land claims, a better road, and tourists enough to support a hotel. In 1859, Charles Leander Weed photographed the valley, and by 1861 Easterners had come to know of the awe-inspiring site from articles in the Boston Evening Transcript, written by the Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King.

The 30 mammoth-plate (18x22 inches) and 100 stereo views that Watkins took in Yosemite in 1861 were among the first photographs of the valley sent back east. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson received copies through Starr King, and in 1862 the photographs excited further interest when they were exhibited at Goupil's New York gallery. It was partly on their evidence that President Lincoln signed a bill in 1864 declaring the valley inviolate and leading the way to the National Parks system.

Watkins combined a mastery of the difficult wet-plate negative process with a rigorous sense of pictorial structure. For large-format landscape work such as he produced in Yosemite, the physical demands of this process were great. Since there was as yet no practical means of enlarging, Watkins’ glass negatives had to be as large as he wished the prints to be, and his camera large enough to accommodate them. Furthermore, the glass negatives had to be coated, exposed, and developed while the collodion remained tacky, requiring the photographer to transport a traveling darkroom as he explored the rugged terrain of the American West.

Relevant Vocabulary

Mammoth Plate an oversize glass plate used to make a negative image in nineteenth-century photography

Albumen Print a photographic print made on paper coated with albumen (egg white)

Ambrotype a mid-nineteenth-century photographic type in which a positive image was recorded on collodion wet plate.

Daguerreotype an early photographic type in which an image is recorded on highly polished piece of metal coated with a light sensitive emulsion. Daguerreotypes were one-of-a-kind images that could not be reproduced.

Wet Collodion a nineteenth-century photographic type in which a piece of plate glass was coated with a silver halide emulsion and placed in a camera while still wet. A latent image was recorded, and then the wet plate was developed, fixed, and varnished to create a glass negative for production of stereograph and mammoth plate photographs.

Silver Gelatin Print the most common form of twentieth-century black-and-white photographic print, in which a piece of paper is coated with a light-sensitive silver gelatin emulsion

Stereograph a popular nineteenth-century photograph in which two small, side-by-side images made using a special twin lens camera create the illusion of a three dimensional scene.

Sublime a historical, philosophical, literary, and art idea that contributed to Romanticism the notion of a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. This greatness is often used when referring to nature and its vastness.

Romanticism an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated around the middle of the 18th century in Western Europe, during the Industrial Revolution. It was partly a revolt against aristocratic, social, and political norms of the Enlightenment period and a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature in art and literature.


Explain to guests that the first Euro-Americans to see the Yosemite region were probably part of the Walker party in 1833, but the first official entrants were part of the Mariposa Battalion, who, in 1851, were sent to forcibly remove the Indian inhabitants of Yosemite after the discovery of gold on John C. Frémont’s ranch in the Mariposa/Bear Valley area of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Shortly thereafter, in 1855, publisher James Mason Hutchings entered Yosemite with a party of men, including Thomas A. Ayres, who created the first drawing of Yosemite Falls ever made.

Explain that the three most significant of Yosemite’s nineteenth-century photographers—Charles Leander Weed, Carleton E. Watkins, and Eadweard J. Muybridge—all created photographs of Yosemite from glass negatives, using the wet plate collodion process, and printing them on paper using the albumen process. All three men were famed for their mammoth plates, unusually large, plate glass negatives designed to capture the large sweeping vistas of Yosemite (and other western sites). However, all three men also created numerous stereographs or stereoviews. These much smaller, side-by-side images were popular for armchair travelers after their invention in the 1840s, and they were comparatively inexpensive, which made them an increasingly popular tourist souvenir commemorating a visit to a wondrous place like Yosemite.

Explain that publisher and entrepreneur James Mason Hutchings made another visit to Yosemite in June, 1859, this time with photographer Charles Weed, rather than a painter or drawer, as he had in 1855 with Thomas Ayres. This was in part because Ayres’ drawings and lithographs, which had been published in Hutchings’ California Magazine in 1855, were deemed by readers to be fanciful—and Hutchings needed to prove that Yosemite Falls were indeed as dramatic as they had been earlier represented.

Explain that Weed took the first photograph of Yosemite in 1859, an imperial-sized (10x14-inch) salt print of Yosemite Falls. During this first visit, he made twenty imperial prints, and forty stereograph views of Yosemite, beginning what would become Later, in 1863/1864, Weed returned with a camera capable of holding 17x22-inch mammoth plates. Gold-toned albumen prints, a new technology that hadn’t been available in 1859, were made of these later negatives, which were richer and clearer than the earlier imperial salt prints.

Explain that all of Watkins’ photographs included in the exhibition are mammoth plate albumen prints from 1861-1865. He made his first visit to Yosemite in 1861, two years after Weed’s first visit, and three years before Weed’s second visit. This enabled him to make a name for himself as a Yosemite photographer, as his 18x22-inch mammoth plate images were very well received by the public, and by scientists such as Josiah D. Whitney, William Henry Brewer, and Clarence King. In a game of one-upsmanship, Charles Weed returned to the valley in 1864, and Watkins returned in 1865 with an even bigger camera with a higher quality lens.

Explain that the wet plate collodion process was an extraordinarily labor intensive photographic process. The artist would have to work quickly. First he had to clean a sheet of plate glass perfectly, removing any dust, lint, streaks, and so forth. Second, in the darkness of a tent, he coated the plate in a viscous, light-sensitive mixture of chemicals called collodion. Third, while the plate was still wet with collodion, the photographer would place the plate in a light-proof plate holder, slip it into the enormous cabinet of the large-format view camera, and remove a lens cap or board from the front of the lens or the front of the plate holder (he would have already trained and focused his lens on his subject), and make an exposure of a few seconds. The lens cap or board would be replaced, and the still-wet plate taken back to the dark tent, and developed, fixed, and varnished using a number of different chemical solutions.

The prints were made from the glass negatives (the negative-making process is described above) and then printed on albumen-coated paper. Photographic chemicals, namely silver salts, had to be bound to paper using albumen, or egg whites. The albumen printing process included the following steps: first, a piece of paper is coated with an emulsion of egg white (albumen) and table salt (sodium chloride), then dried. The albumen seals the paper and creates a slightly glossy surface. Second, the paper is dipped in a solution of silver nitrate and water, rendering the surface light-sensitive. Third, the paper is dried in total darkness. Fourth, the dried, prepared paper is placed in a frame in direct contact under a negative, often a glass negative with collodion emulsion, and exposed to light until the image achieves the desired level of darkness. Fifth, a bath of sodium thiosulfate fixes the print’s exposure, preventing further darkening. Finally, optional gold or selenium toning improves the photograph’s tone and stabilizes it against fading (e.g. the Weed photograph from 1864).

Explain to guests that Watkins and his contemporaries created both mammoth plate photographs and smaller stereoviews. Like their painter counterparts, the photographers sold their mammoth plate prints to discerning collectors, often wealthy patrons including the likes of Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington, and their smaller stereoviews to tourists and armchair travelers elsewhere in the country.