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Carleton Watkins and the Image of Manifest Destiny

In his new book, Tyler Green considers a pioneering photographer of the American West.

By Maika Pollack

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley from the Best General View, 1865–66
Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum

I’ve always been curious about Carleton Watkins. Manifest Destiny personified, his collodian landscapes extended the Wheeler and King surveys, post-Civil War expeditions that photographed the American West, to the very shores of the Pacific. But there is also something transcendent to Watkins’s pictures of Yosemite. They have absolutely no visible grain; they are lush, immersive, even prescient, creating as much as capturing Northern CaliforniaHis Lake Tahoe, from the Warm Springs (1878–1882)—all shining lake contained by rolling black hills—seems to contain the spores of a Northern California yet to be, the roiling sublimity of Allen Ginsberg or the Grateful Dead. Much like other entrepreneurial American photographers of the nineteenth century (Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner), Watkins opened his own gallery, the Yosemite Art Gallery, in San Francisco to sell his work to the public. Unlike them, though, his photographs were also sold by Goupil & Cie, the Parisian art prints dealer, at an age before photographs could stake much claim as high art. What was going on?

Carleton Watkins, Lake Tahoe, from the Warm Springs, 1878–1882
Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

Mainly thanks to the destruction of Watkins’s records—along with nearly everything else in San Francisco—wrought by the massive earthquake of 1906, Tyler Green’s new book Carleton Watkins: Making the West American is not a biography. Although Watkins’s life, like that of many commercially successful nineteenth-century photographers, is a rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story (it’s still surprising Rebecca Solnit’s 2003 book River of Shadows about the cinematic rapscallion Eadweard Muybridge hasn’t yet been made into a film), Watkins remains an enigmatic character in this account. What Green has done instead, with success, is to create a detailed picture of the intellectual geography of Watkins’s photographs. From the paintings of Albert Bierstadt to the Transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau and the geology of Louis Agassiz, Green maps out the American scientific, financial, and artistic worlds Watkins worked within, and convincingly argues for his unique place in them. This book is a thoughtfully researched meditation on a photographer’s complex contribution to the formation of our national identity.

Carleton Watkins, Cape Horn, Columbia River, Washington Territory, 1867
Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum

Green, the pull-no-punches host and producer of the Modern Art Notes podcast, is a born skeptic, and as such he is wonderfully meticulous about his archival research. Watkins’s work, unlike Timothy O’Sullivan’s, was not government-funded. His commissions connect dozens of California’s oligarch founders, and Green’s deep dive into letters and contracts convincingly demonstrates how Watkins’s photographs contain within their grainless surfaces complex considerations of property, geology, capital, the politics of natural resources, and the ownership of water.

Yet Green is also a Watkins enthusiast, and out of love for the photographs he shows how Watkins’s own ambition went far beyond the task of taking pictures: “Detractors who, in recent decades, have argued that Watkins was a mere photographer in an era of painters, or that he merely made the pictures that were in front of him and thus gets credit for being there but not for doing anything special, must reckon with [his work],” he writes. That Watkins’s pictures of the natural landscape influenced John Muir and Frederick Law Olmsted’s conception of Yosemite National Park is well-known. But that the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson hung Watkins’s Cathedral Spires (1865–66) and Mount Shasta (1867) in his living room in Concord, Massachusetts, next to a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait of Thomas Carlyle, tells volumes about Watkins’s intellectual contextand why his images are at once so precise and so otherworldly.

Carleton Watkins, Cathedral Spires, Yosemite, California, 1865–66
Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum

Green is engagingly technical, going into detail about exhibition practices (sequoia wood frames!), copyright issues (why you should never buy a Watkins print featuring clouds—it was probably printed by a competitor), sales practices, and the political and legal uses of photography during Watkins’s time. He unearths a gripping bit of his own family’s history in relation to a Watkins photograph; in the nineteenth century, a direct relative commissioned a Watkins. We learn that Watkins’s collodian plates were some of the largest negatives in the history of photography: one glass plate weighed four pounds and was 17 by 21 inches—no other analog method even comes close to the sheer information that contains. I would have loved a little more on Watkins’s darkroom technique. How did dodging and burning function with those mammoth glass-plate negatives? What might comparing different prints of the same photograph tell us?

Carleton Watkins, Mount Shasta, Siskiyou County, California, 1867
Courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum

I found the book’s first chapter, about where Watkins was born, his early life before he became a photographer, and the history of Oneonta, New York, far from illuminating Watkins’s mysterious images of California, and I was highly skeptical of Green’s attempts to narrate what people in the past were thinking—this seemed to lend a needless “historical fiction” tone to the book’s earliest pages. Harvard photo scholar Robin Kelsey’s noted history of U.S. surveys is conspicuously absent from the bibliography, which seems an omission. But the book is convincing in its central argument, relating the sublimity of Watkins’s photography to American Transcendentalism, particularly the poetry of Emerson. It is also quite beautiful on the meanings of early Californian culture. In this sense Green’s research is not just about Watkins, but about the significance of the American West, and in some ways the definition of America itself. Ultimately, the book makes a strong case for photography as the first and most American art: much like Watkins’s work, Making the West American is at once technical and transcendent.

Maika Pollack teaches the history of photography in the MFA program at the Pratt Institute.

Carleton Watkins: Making the West American was published by University of California Press in October 2018.

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