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Watkins (Carleton E.) photograph collection
PC RM Watkins  
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Collection Overview
 
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Description
Carleton E. Watkins was a 19th century photographer based in San Francisco who made his name documenting the rapid growth of the American West, and whose name is frequently associated with the birth of the photographic medium – particularly with early landscape photography. This collection contains albumen prints taken throughout his career, between the years of 1856 and 1885. The bulk of photographs taken depict the Yosemite Valley and MariposaS Grove, and were taken at various points between 1861 and 1881. It includes large-format mammoth plate photographs and smaller photographic prints, as well as more commercial formats such as stereographs, cabinet cards, and boudoir cards. The photographs depict a variety of subjects, from San Francisco to various locations around the Western United States, as well as images of prominent visitors to San Francisco, and photographs of the homes of some of Watkins's wealthy patrons, among them bankers, railroad magnates, and politicians.
Background
Carleton E. Watkins was a 19th century photographer based in San Francisco who made his name documenting the rapid growth of the American West. His majestic photos of the Yosemite Valley, in Mariposa County, California, are said to have influenced Abraham Lincoln's 1864 Yosemite Land Grant - the first act of Congress to designate federal land for public use. It is often referred to as "the birth of the national parks system." Watkins was the oldest of eight children, born to a carpenter and an innkeeper in Oneonta, New York, on November 11, 1929. He moved west with childhood friend Collis Huntington during the Gold Rush in 1851. He later took a job in San Francisco working next door to daguerreotypist Robert H. Vance, who eventually hired Watkins and taught him the basics of photography. Watkins probably began his photography career next year, in 1855, when he photographed the mines at New Idrea and New Almaden, as well as Mission Santa Clara. Watkins first appeared in the San Francisco directory in 1861, listed as a daguerrean operator at 425 Montgomery Street. It was also the year that he first travelled to Yosemite to photograph it – a difficult undertaking that required nearly two thousand pounds of equipment, including at least a dozen mules, flammable chemicals, a stereoscopic camera, an oversize mammoth-plate camera, and 18 x 22 inch glass plates. On the strength of this work, Watkins was hired by the California State Geological Survey from 1865-1866 to further document the Yosemite region. These photographs of Yosemite (which exposed many Easterners to previously-unseen parts of the West) made Watkins famous, and in 1867 he opened his lavish Yo Semite Art Gallery in San Francisco. He also travelled to the Pacific Northwest, photographing Oregon, British Columbia, and the Columbia River – the first photographs ever taken of the region. Despite his remarkable success as a photographer and his many wealthy patrons, Watkins was a poor businessman and, following the financial panic of 1873, lost his gallery, as well as his photographic negatives, to J.J. Cook, Isaiah W. Taber, and Thomas H. Boyd. Taber then began issuing prints of Watkins images with his name attached and without credit to Watkins. Watkins's "New Series" of photographs were created to replace some of the images he lost. In 1876, Watkins travelled to Virginia City, Nevada to visit the Comstock Lode, and it is here that he is rumored to have met his future wife, Frances Sneed, who first became his assistant. In 1879, on his 50th birthday, Watkins married Sneed, who was 22 at the time. They had two children, named Julia and Collis. In 1894, Watkins began to experience health problems, and was unable complete a photographic commission. He also began to experience vision loss, and by 1903 was almost completely blind. In 1906, while in the process of negotiating the sale and transfer of his photographic archive (including his mammoth glass plate negatives) to Stanford University, the 1906 earthquake, and subsequent fire, struck. Watkins's studio was lost. When his poor health made it difficult for his family to care for him, he was placed in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Of Watkins's death, on June 23, 1916, Peter Palmquist writes: "He is thought to have been buried in the hospital graveyard, but no tombstone marks his grave."
Extent
65.25 Linear Feet
Restrictions
Materials in this collection are in the public domain in the United States. Permission to publish or reproduce is not required.
Availability
Collection is open for research.