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.

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