Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins self-portrait (enlarged to show detail)
Yosemite Valley, View from Inspiration Point, 1879, in the Princeton University Art Museum
Minerva Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs, National Park, by Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) was an American photographer of the 19th century. Born in New York, he moved to California and quickly became interested in photography. He focused mainly on landscape photos, and Yosemite was a favorite subject of his. His photos of the valley significantly influenced the United States Congress’ decision to preserve it as a National Park.


  • Early life 1
    • Birth 1.1
    • San Francisco 1.2
    • Jobs prior to photography 1.3
  • Photography career 2
    • Robert Vance 2.1
    • Early Work 2.2
    • Yosemite 2.3
    • Studios 2.4
    • Taber and "New Series" 2.5
  • Personal life 3
    • Family 3.1
  • Decline 4
    • Loss of Sight 4.1
    • Loss of Work 4.2
    • Napa State Hospital for the Insane 4.3
  • Legacy 5
    • Yosemite 5.1
    • Environmentalism 5.2
    • "Grizzly Giant" 5.3
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Early life


Carleton Watkins was born on November 11, 1829, the eldest of eight children. His parents were John and Julia Watkins, a carpenter and an innkeeper. Born in Oneonta, New York, he was a hunter and fisherman and was involved in the glee club and Presbyterian Church Choir.[1]

San Francisco

In 1851, Watkins and his childhood friend Collis Huntington moved to San Francisco with hopes of finding gold.[1] Although they did not succeed in this specific venture, both became successful. Watkins became known for his photography skills, and Huntington became one of the “Big Four” owners of the Central Pacific Railroad.[2] This would later be helpful for Watkins.

Jobs prior to photography

During the first two years in San Francisco, Watkins did not work in photography. He worked originally worked for his friend Huntington, delivering supplies to mining operations. He did this before working as a store clerk at a George Murray’s Bookstore,[2] near the studio of Robert Vance, a well-known Daguerreotypist. An employee of Vance’s unexpectedly left his job, and Watkins’ agreeable personality led to his looking after the studio.[3]

Photography career

Robert Vance

Before his work with Vance, Watkins knew nothing about photography. Vance showed him the basic elements of photography, planning to return and retake the portraits himself. However, when he came back, he found that Watkins had excelled at the art while he was away and his customers were satisfied.[3]

Smelting Works, New Almaden, by Watkins, Carleton E., 1829-1916

Early Work

By 1858, Watkins was ready to begin his own photography business. He did many various commissions, including “Illustrated California Magazine” for James Mason Hutchings and the documentation of John and Jessie Fremont’s mining estate in Mariposa.[2] He made Daguerreotype stereoviews (two nearly identical images of the same scene, viewed through a stereoscope to create an illusion of depth) at the “Almaden Quicksilver Mines.” These were used in a widely publicized court case, which furthered his reputation as a photographer.[3]


In July 1861, Watkins made the decision that changed his career: he traveled to Yosemite. He brought his mammoth-plate camera (which used 18x22 inch glass plates) and his stereoscopic camera.[2] The stereoscopic camera was used to bring the subject alive, and the mammoth-plate camera was used to capture more detail.[1] The photographer returned with thirty mammoth plate and one hundred stereo view negatives. These were some of the first photographs of Yosemite seen in the East.[4] In 1864-5, Watkins was hired to make photographs of Yosemite for the California State Geological Survey.[1]


In 1867, Watkins opened his first public gallery, in addition to sending his photographs to the Universal Exposition in Paris, where he won a medal.[1] This became his lavish Yosemite Art Gallery. He displayed over a hundred large Pacific coast views in addition over a thousand images available through stereoscopes.[1] Despite his success as an artist, he was not successful as a businessman and ended up losing his gallery to his creditor J.J. Cook.[2]

Plantain Tree, by Watkins, Carleton E., 1829-1916

Taber and "New Series"

Not only did Watkins lose his studio to Cook, he also lost its contents.[5] When Cook and photographer Isaiah Taber took over Yosemite Art Gallery, they began reproducing his work without giving him credit.[2] The 19th century had no copyright laws covering photographs, and there was nothing Watkins could do to combat this plagiarism. Due to this, he began recreating the images he lost, calling it the “New Series.” [3]

Personal life


Watkins met Frances Sneed photographing in Virginia City.[3] They became romantically involved in 1878 and were married a year later, on Watkins’ fiftieth birthday. The couple had two children: a daughter Julia in 1881, and a son Collis in 1883.[1]


Loss of Sight

Watkins began to lose his sight in the 1890s. His last commission was from Phoebe Hearst to photograph her Hacienda del Pozo de Verona. Watkins was unable to complete this job due to his failing sight and health. In 1895-96, his lack of work led to an inability to pay rent. The Watkins family lived in an abandoned railroad car for eighteen months before Huntington deeds Watkins Capay Ranch in Yolo County.[1]

Loss of Work

Watkins kept the majority of his work in a studio on Market Street. This studio was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, with it countless pictures, negatives and the majority of his stereo views. After this horrific loss, he retired to Capay Ranch.[3]

Napa State Hospital for the Insane

Three years after Watkins retired to Capay Ranch, he was declared incompetent and put into the care of his daughter Julia. She cared for him for a year before committing him to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane in 1910, at which point Frances Watkins began referring to herself as “widow.” Watkins died in 1916 and was buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital grounds.[1]


Cathedral Rocks, 2600 feet, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, Cal, by Watkins, Carleton E., 1829-1916


Watkins often photographed Yosemite, and had a profound influence over the politicians debating its preservation as a national park. His photos did more than just capture the now national park; he created an icon. Half Dome, for example, did already exist, but Watkins’ photos brought it to people in a way that they could experience it. It became iconic through his photographs, became something people wanted to see in person. His images had a more concrete impact on Yosemite becoming a national park than just encouraging people to visit. It is said that Senator John Conness passed Watkins’ photographs around Congress.[6] His photography was also said to have influenced President Abraham Lincoln, and was one of the major factors in Lincoln signing the bill in 1864 declaring Yosemite Valley inviolable. This, then, paved the way for the National Parks system in its entirety.[3] One of Yosemite’s many mountains is named Mount Watkins in honor of Watkins’ part in preserving Yosemite Valley.[1]


The 1864 bill signed by Lincoln is often seen as the beginning of environmentalism in American politics. In accordance with his influence in preserving Yosemite and the beginning of the National Parks system, Watkins is seen as an important part of that. His photographs captured nature in a way that caught the eye of Americans. He created sublime images of wilderness, pristine landscapes untouched by humans. These images established icons that furthered environmentalist ideals, helping to back claims about preservation.[6]

Section of the Grizzly Giant, looking up, Mariposa Grove, Mariposa County, Cal, by Watkins, Carleton E., 1829-1916 2

"Grizzly Giant"

Not every environmentalist believes in Watkins’ positive influence on the ideals they aim for. In addition to photographing Yosemite, Watkins also photographed one of the giant sequoia trees in California, the “Grizzly Giant.” His photo was created with one of his mammoth plates, which allowed him to photograph the entire tree, which had not been done before. Watkins, in addition to creating an image not seen before, was already very well-known, and the image rapidly gained fame. Despite the fact that Watkins was attempting to preserve the trees, the way his photograph captured American audiences led to an increase in tourism in the area, which led to larger commercialization, which led to a diminishing of the giant sequoias.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "National Gallery of Art - Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception". 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Welcome to the Photographs of Carleton Watkins". 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Carleton E. Watkins". 
  4. ^ "Carleton E. Watkins (Getty Museum)". 
  5. ^ "Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology". 
  6. ^ a b DeLuca, Kevin Michael; Demo, Anne Teresa (2000). "Imaging Nature: Watkins, Yosemite, and the Birth of Environmentalism" (PDF). Critical Studies In Media Communication 17, no. 3: 241. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost. Retrieved October 16, 2014. 
  7. ^ Hutchinson, Elizabeth (2004). "They Might Be Giants: Carleton Watkins, Galen Clark, and the Big Tree". October no. 109: 46-63. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost. Retrieved October 16, 2014. 

Further reading

  • Naeff, W, Wood, J, & Heyman, T (1975). Era of exploration : the rise of landscape photography in the American West, 1860-1885 . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

External links

  • Early Watkins Yosemite Photographs
  • Watkins photographs in Josiah Whitney, The Yosemite Book (1869)
  • Mammoth Plate Photographs of Yosemite Valley, 1861-1881 and Stereo Views of the West, ca. 1865-ca. 1880, The Bancroft Library (several other Watkins photo collections also available through the Online Archive of California)
  • Mammoth Plate Photographs of the North American West by Watkins from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
  • Carleton Watkins Interior Views of Anaconda Mines (Butte, MT)Digital Collection of Photographs from the University of Idaho Library Digital Collections