Carleton Watkins’s Mammoth Vision of Yosemite

I’ve never been to Yosemite National Park—I haven’t hiked to Half Dome or felt the spray of Bridalveil Fall—yet its views are familiar to me. For that, I have Carleton Watkins to thank. His is not a household name, but the landscapes he photographed are now recognized worldwide. Before the trails of our National Parks were laid, before the National Parks were even established, Watkins made photographs of Yosemite that would shape and protect the future of that wilderness.

Photography was only a little over 30 years old when he made his first trip to Yosemite in 1861. (He would later return in 1865, which is when he made the images that are featured in this post). Point-and-shoot cameras didn’t exist. 35mm film wasn’t even invented yet. That meant cameras were big and cumbersome. To better understand the process Watkins used to make his iconic images, I spoke with Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the curator of a Watkins exhibition currently on view Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. Mitchell explains that Watkins custom built a camera designed to hold 18” x 22” glass-plate negatives, which were even bigger than most other large-format negatives used at the time. Compared to the ease of working with 35mm film, which is made of emulsion-coated plastic and measures just over one inch in length, working with those aptly named “mammoth” glass plates was a huge undertaking.

Part of the reason Watkins’s images still wow us is that his process was so labor intensive. “Now when we’re in Yosemite, we can whip out our smartphones and take high-quality photographs very easily. Watkins had to pack in a literal ton of equipment, at least on one of his trips, on mules. For Watkins, taking a photograph meant undertaking an incredible feat of physical endurance, of planning, of logistics,” says Mitchell.

In order to help the modern reader appreciate his process, I broke down Watkins’s procedure into four simplified steps:

1. Carry 2,000 pounds of equipment—the equivalent of two horses—including mammoth glass plates, flammable chemicals, and a makeshift darkroom, on mules through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

2. Make the glass plates photosensitive by coating them with said flammable chemicals in total darkness, being careful to keep all dust, pollen, and other matter off the plates. (Keep in mind Watkins was doing this in a makeshift darkroom in the wilderness).

3. Immediately put the light-sensitive glass plate into the camera in order to properly expose iconic vista.

4. Once exposed, process the negative with the appropriate chemicals to permanently fix the image onto the glass for future printing.

There was little room for error in this multi-step process. If a scene was overexposed or out of focus he would have to start with a fresh piece of glass. Watkins was able to print the negatives onto paper at a later time, but he had to be certain that he got the images he needed before leaving Yosemite—to change the camera angle in just one frame would require another expedition.

His finished prints were artfully composed, highly detailed, and masterfully printed, but most importantly, they made visible the vistas that were otherwise inaccessible to the average person. “He created an image of the American west for the world. His photographs were exhibited on the east coast, even in exhibitions in Europe. And this area of the world that people were absolutely fascinated by, they’d been reading about. He gave them a large scale visual record of it,” says Mitchell.

She explains that in addition to selling prints and having exhibitions, Watkins produced bound sets of photos. “That’s how the photographs that he took in 1861 reached Washington D.C. and came to the attention of this 38th American congress, and probably President Lincoln as well. That then inspired them to pass the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864 and protect the land for private use.”

These days images of Yosemite and other National Parks are ubiquitous; some might even call them commonplace or cliché. As photographers Abelardo Morell and Peter Essick discussed in a recent conversation on Proof, it’s become a challenge to capture and communicate the splendor of a place that attracts millions of visitors each year. Watkins’s images have become a small part of the massive visual archive of Yosemite. Taken today, they might have even been lost in the hundreds of thousands of depictions. But his photographs will always be part of the reason that the Yosemite of the 1860’s is still recognizable to us in 2014, and that is quite the legacy.

The exhibition Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums is on view from April 23-August 17 at Stanford University’s Cantor Arts Center.

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