Carleton E. Watkins


1829, Oneonta, New York
1916, Imola, California

Portrait of Carleton Watkins

Collection of The Society of California Pioneers


Carleton E. Watkins came to California around 1851 from the small New York town of Oneonta, one of a hundred thousand hopeful young men migrating west that year in search of Gold Rush fortune. In the boomtown of San Francisco, he fell into photography by chance when asked by a local daguerreotypist to stand in for a missing employee. A natural adept, he soon established his own business fabricating outdoor photographs for land-dispute cases and mining interests.

After his first photographic expedition to Yosemite in the summer of 1861, Watkins's name was made, and for the nearly half a century that followed he defied the vicissitudes of fortune and commerce to create what are surely the finest American landscape photographs of the 19th century. In wide-ranging travels across the length and breadth of the frontier West, Watkins energetically balanced a practical need to characterize the land before him with his craftsman's pride in a picture plumbed and mitred to perfection.

In the 1860s Carleton Watkins loaded a team of mules with his mammoth-plate camera and glass negatives and ventured into Yosemite Valley. The pictures he made there helped lay the foundation for American landscape photography, before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed much of his life’s work. Delve into the extraordinary tale of an artist nearly obliterated from history.

Audio Stories

Explore Watkins’s mammoth-plate views of the American West

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Carleton Watkins is probably the most important 19th-century photographer to come out of California.  



Erin OToole, SFMOMA curator of photography: 



Carleton Watkins was interested in finding a way to convey the scale of the Western landscape to his audience, much of whom was on the East Coast. And so he had a cabinetmaker build him a giant camera that was capable of producing glass-plate negatives that were 18 by 22 inches. This is quite huge. Watkins called them mammoth-plate photographs.  



Watkins didnt enlarge any of his photographs. In fact, he printed them directly from the glass negative. No one before Watkins had documented the changing face of the West on such a scale, nor with such artistry. Watkinss photographs helped shape the way we view the West today. Again, heres Erin OToole.  



Carleton Watkins saw his mammoth-plate photographs as something more than just mere documents of what he had seen. He considered them to be more like paintings, and conceived of them as something to be hung on the wall, to be framed and to be considered like landscape paintings.  


And this is really important to the history of photography in California, because California was essentially the first place where photographs were looked at in this way; and that because perhaps California was sort of this new place with kind of frontier ideas, it didnt seem so radical to consider photographs that were this mechanical art, to consider them as fine art like a painting.  

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