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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Carleton Watkins' Yosemite

River View, Cathedral Rock, Yosemite by Carleton Watkins, 1861
For those of you who visited CHS to see our recent exhibit, Yosemite:  A Storied Landscape, and were awed by the spectacular nineteenth century mammoth plate photographs of Carleton Watkins, you might like to know that the handful of images on display were just a small selection of prints by Watkins that are part of CHS’ collections.  Recently, sixty-seven of Watkins’ mammoth plate photographs of Yosemite were processed and cataloged.

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point by Carleton Watkins, 1879-1881
Watkins made the photographs during several trips to Yosemite over the course of years.  His photographs of 1861 have special significance.  It was in 1861, two years after Charles Leander Weed made the first photographs of Yosemite, that Watkins decided to have a unique camera constructed that could accommodate 18 x 24 inch wet glass-plate negatives (because of their size they are commonly called mammoth plates) and a new type of wide angle lens, which would enable him to capture more of Yosemite’s grandeur in each image.  Watkins photographs of 1861 were exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in New York in December of 1862, and California Senator John Conness is thought to have shown them to Abraham Lincoln the following year.  If this is true, these photographs most surely played a part in Lincoln’s decision to sign the Yosemite Grant Act of 1864, which set aside and protected the land for “public use, resort, and recreation.”

Nevada Fall, Yosemite by Carleton Watkins, 1861
Living in a time when taking a photograph can be accomplished by the split-second push of a button on a cell phone, it’s worthwhile (not to mention, mind-boggling) to stop and think about what amazing effort it took to make photographs such as these.  Using mules, Watkins packed in two thousand pounds of equipment over seventy-five  miles from Mariposa to Yosemite Valley.  Along with the cameras and glass plates, he would have brought a dark tent for developing, tripods, plate holders, lenses, and volatile chemicals.  He would have trekked all these supplies to dizzying and precarious vantage points.  This is to say nothing of the bugs, dirt, and sun that could wreak havoc on the glass plates covered with collodion, a gelatinous liquid made of gun cotton, ether, and alcohol.  The result of this massive endeavor is a body of work that has never been surpassed, though Eadweard Muybridge would soon create his own magnificent mammoth plate prints to stand alongside those of Watkins.

El Capitan, Yosemite by Carleton Watkins, 1861

The California Historical Society holds collections of Yosemite mammoth plate prints and stereographs by Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, as well as work by George Fiske, Ansel Adams, Gustav Fagersteen, and many unknown amateur photographers.  These collections are available to researchers for viewing in our library.  We do require advance notice to view the Watkins and Muybridge collections.   Please contact our reference desk to make an appointment:

The finding aid to the Carleton Watkins mammoth plate photographs of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, 1861-1881 is available on the Online Archive of California:

Additional Yosemite photographs from our collections can be viewed on our Flickr Commons page:

Wendy Welker
Archivist & Librarian

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