Carleton Watkins

Staff Pick

Starting with his mesmerizing recreation of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed hundreds of Watkins’s glass plate negatives, Green’s phenomenal rags-to-riches-to-rags life of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), once the nation’s most famous photographer, is full of stunning set pieces on topics as varied as the economics of the 19th-century butter business in Otsego County, the processes for quartz- and hydraulic-mining during the Gold Rush, and the fights over the Transcontinental Railroad. Green’s enthusiasm and authority make all of it fascinating. What little we know about Watkins himself comes from his thousand-plus photographs and from the records of famous friends such as Jesse Frémont, Frederick Law Olmstead, John Muir, and the many industrialists he worked for. Watkins left Central New York for San Francisco at age nineteen. There’s little information about how, why, where, or under whom he learned photography, but suddenly the photographs are there. From the late 1850s, when he was hired to take pictures as evidence in a mining dispute, through his truly pioneering picture-taking expeditions to Yosemite, Mendocino, and Mt. Shasta, to his last pictures of Phoebe Hearst’s estate in the 1890s when he was almost blind, Watkins was essential to how the rest of the country saw the West. Tyler is an excellent close reader of Watkins’s images, mining every detail for what it conveys about Watkins’s artistic vision as well as pointing out the physical challenges of these shots, which often required steep climbs, long hikes, and precarious cliff-edge perching—all while schlepping hundreds of pounds of fragile equipment. Green puts the work in several larger contexts as well, showing how Watkins’s focus on landscape for its own sake echoed Emerson’s thinking about nature and fostered evolving notions of conservation and national parks. Watkins also helped inform scientists about the botany and geology of the west, contributing information vital to the understanding of glaciers. Finally, Tyler makes Watkins key to the nation’s idea of itself; showing Easterners the West, he shaped popular ideas of what “America” was, wasn’t, and could be. To Watkins, all this was beside the point. He was first and foremost an artist, presenting his pictures framed, like paintings, something unheard of at the time.

Carleton Watkins: Making the West American Cover Image
$34.95
ISBN: 9780520287983
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: University of California Press - October 16th, 2018

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