The black-and-white photographs of Carleton Watkins are so beautifully composed with such breathtaking detail that they feel timeless.
It’s hard to believe that Watkins hauled nearly a ton of equipment — a mobile darkroom, flammable chemicals and more — by mule into Yosemite Valley. The stunning photographs helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln and Congress to pass legislation to preserve the land, paving the way for a national park system.
“Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums,” which includes more than 80 prints, coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Valley Grant. In addition to the Yosemite photographs, the exhibition at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center includes photographs from the 1860s and 1870s of the Pacific Coast.
“These extraordinary albums from Stanford University Libraries’ singular collection provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to examine Watkins’ place in the history of photography, and to more fully understand the critical role photography played in the preservation, promotion and development of the West,” says Connie Wolf, the Cantor’s John & Jill Freidenrich director.
The technical challenges Watkins faced by today’s standards seem daunting. He made 18-by-22-inch plates that were exposed for up to an hour. The heat warped some of the camera parts, and any work could be easily ruined by dust and dirt.
The velvety blacks, whites and grays in Watkins’ pictures create a landscape of impressive detail. Images reflected in a stream are so precise they seem almost unreal. Half Dome and Cathedral rocks are familiar landmarks, but in Watkins’ hands they are freshly rendered.
One of the most stunning pictures is one with a lone tree in the foreground, cropped so that the top doesn’t show. With Watkins’ careful composition and use of perspective, the tree stands like a sculpture against a softened background.
Watkins was born in 1829 in New York. He headed west, and in the course of his career, took more than 7,000 photographs.
For a time, Watkins prospered and had a gallery in San Francisco. But he was deeply in debt when the Bank of California failed in 1874, causing him to go bankrupt and lose his gallery and most of his negatives to a competitor.
He began to rebuild his career but his health declined, leaving him nearly blind by 1903. Tragedy struck with the 1906 earthquake and fire, which destroyed his studio and work. The shock and loss was too much. He was eventually committed to Napa State Hospital, where he died in 1916.
IF YOU GO
Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums
Where: Cantor Arts Center, Palm Drive at Museum Way, Stanford University, Stanford
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, except until 8 p.m. Thursdays; closes Aug. 17