Supriya Joshi revisits the works of the visionary Carleton E Watkins and discovers his hunger for invention.
Sometimes, all it takes to bring back the spark and enthusiasm into your photographic work is to take a look at the image makers of the past. I am fascinated with the works of 19th Century photographers, and their sheer ingenuity, thirst for exploration and their unending quest for creating something new. One such legend, whose works I recently went back to, is Carleton E Watkins, a photographer so significant, he is responsible for some of the most important images of all time. This is his story.
In Search of Gold
Watkins’ journey began in 1851, when he took a trip to California at the peak of the Gold Rush. All over America, people began frantically travelling to California when news spread that a carpenter by the name of James W Marshall had discovered gold at a mill in Coloma. Watkins was in search of better prospects too, and the possibility of finding gold was too good to pass.
But, like thousands of other people, he did not strike gold. He did not want to move all the way back to New York, where he was originally from, so he got a job as a store clerk in California. What happened next was complete serendipity.
A Change of Course
Watkins had a congenial personality, which caught the fancy of R H Vance, a daguerreotypist. They became quite cordial too.
One day, an operator in Vance’s San Jose studio left his job unexpectedly, leaving Vance in a tizzy. He immediately summoned Watkins to look after the studio, until he could find a replacement for the operator. Watkins had no experience in the medium, but still took up the job. Vance showed Watkins the basics, which fueled Watkins’ imagination and interest towards photography. In a few short weeks, he began making portraits of customers all by himself. They would be thoroughly satisfied with his work too, which gave him impetus to pursue photography. He understood that photography was his one true calling and dedicated the rest of his life to it.
The Outdoor Man
As time progressed, Watkins further trained himself on photo techniques and processes and found himself more and more in love with the great outdoors. In 1858, he started working on his own and he started to venture to Yosemite Valley and fell in love with the place. He was completely taken by the beauty that surrounded him, but he did not feel that a normal camera would do justice to what he saw. So, he actually constructed his own.
A Mammoth Task
In 1861, he commissioned a ‘mammoth camera’, a device so huge, it was at least three feet in length when extended. It used large glass plate negatives, which were 18 x 22 inches in size!
Along the precarious tracks and unchartered terrain of Yosemite, Watkins would carry his equipment along with a portable darkroom on the backs of several mules.
Another ingenious invention by Watkins was a stereoscopic camera. This camera produced two photographs, which were placed the same distance apart as the eyes. This, in turn, would give a three dimensional effect to the viewer. He had a special stereoscope viewer installed, and people would pay big amounts to view his 3D photos.
A Tryst with Beauty
His time photographing the Yosemite valley saw him making 30 images with his mammoth camera and dozens of stereoscopic images. Before him, no photographer had travelled there, and Watkins was determined to give it the status it deserved. His images of the valley became the talk of the town. No one really knew how beautiful Yosemite was, and Watkins’ images played a huge role in getting people’s attention towards this natural wonder. These images influenced the government’s decision to establish Yosemite as a National Park in 1864. In fact, his Yosemite work was so impactful, the first mountain in the valley was named after him, namely, Mount Watkins.
Emerging From a Setback
In his prime, Watkins drew huge crowds to visit his gallery and view his work. Unfortunately, he suffered a financial crisis in 1875, and lost his studio and all his photographic work to his creditor J J Cook. Cook, along with photographer I W Taber, took over Watkins’ gallery and began marketing his stereoviews under Taber’s name.
Surprisingly, this did not pull Watkins down. He decided to rebuild his catalogue, and travelled to all the places he had photographed before. Of course, he began with Yosemite, where it all started for him.
The Shock and Fall
By the mid-1890s, Watkins’ eyesight began deteriorating and he developed health problems, yet he kept going. His friend Charles Turrill decided to help Watkins by organising his work, but a bulk of it still remained untouched in Watkins’ studio.
Tragedy struck again in 1906, when the Great Earthquake of San Francisco occurred. It destroyed Watkins’ studio along with the negatives of everything he ever photographed. The images that survived were ones that Turrill was organising. Watkins never recovered from the shock of this loss and he had to be admitted into a mental asylum in 1910. He died six years later.
Watkins’ prolific career spanned 50 years, and influenced photographers and naturalists for years to come. In fact, in many ways, I can say that his work foreshadows legendary landscape photographers that followed.
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Better Photography.
This is why I like revisiting photographers of the past. They help me realise the unlimited possibilities of photography.Tags: Great Master, Supriya Joshi, Landscape Photography, November 2014, Carleton E Watkins, 1800 photographer, yosemite