Carleton Watkins - Photographing Early California
by Susan Saperstein
Carleton Watkins was an early photographer who
captured the Western landscapes, new cities, and
industries. He photographed burgeoning San
Francisco, land baron estates, Yosemite,
Yellowstone, the Pacific coast, and mining and
His photographs of Yosemite, seen by few people
at the time, encouraged Abraham Lincoln to sign
a bill which was the forerunner for the National
Park System. Considered one of the best
landscape photographers, he made thousands of
majestic images. However, Watkins had financial
problems, and many of his photographs (including
many in the San Francisco History Center
collection) are attributed to other people who
acquired his bankrupt businesses. And sadly,
Carleton Watkins had a dismal end to his life.
Watkins was one of the many who caught gold
fever and came to California, traveling
west in 1851 from Oneonta, New York,
with Collis Huntington, who would
become one of the Big Four owners of
the Central Pacific Railroad.
Watkins first worked for Huntington in
Sacramento, but a few years later
moved to San Francisco. He began
working for a photographer, learning
the new craft that was only 25 years old
at the time. His early work was portraits,
trial evidence, and commissions. John
FrÈmont, explorer and general, used
him to photograph his land holdings to
He worked with large glass plate
negatives 18 x 22 inches. Mules were
used to haul 2,000 pounds of
equipment to set up makeshift
darkrooms at the sites. His work was also presented as stereoviews, popular during this era, using two similar photographs taken from a different perspective and a viewer to create a three dimensional image.
Although Charles Leander Weed had been the
first to photograph Yosemite, Watkins made his
first trip there in 1861 and created 30 negatives.
At first these images were only seen by his San
Francisco friends, including FrÈmont, his wife
Jesse, and Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King.
King told friends in the East, such as Ralph Waldo
Emerson, and soon after the Yosemite photos
were shown in a New York gallery and later
exhibited at the 1867 International Exposition in
By 1863 he was earning a good income from
stereoviews of Yosemite and other western
landscapes, and as photographer for the
California State Geological Survey. He was also
the "go-to" photographer of choice for owners of
Nob Hill mansions.
In 1871 he opened the Yosemite Art Gallery on
Montgomery Street in an area known as Gallery
Row because of the many photographers located
there. This location took advantage of the tourists
staying at the Lick House across the street.
Watkins was not a good businessman. He had
problems with photographs being reprinted
without permission and other photographers using
the same scenes. He also suffered from health
problems that limited his work in the field. In a
financial panic of the 1870s, he lost his studio and
negatives to a creditor and declared bankruptcy.
Photographer I. W. Taber took over the Yosemite
Art Gallery and sold Watkins's work using his own
name. Many of Watkins's photos in the History
Center collection are listed as Taber's. He
overcame this disaster by re-photographing
landscapes and creating new images, calling
these views his "New Series." In the next ten
years he published over 2,300 images of western
landscapes and Bay Area scenes. He later
became manager of the Yosemite Art Gallery, by
then under different ownership
On his 50th birthday, Carleton Watkins married
Frances Sneade, who was almost 30 years
younger. They had two children, Collis and Julia.
By the mid 1890s, Watkins's eyesight was
deteriorating, devastating for a man who based
his life on images. He also had crippling leg ulcers
and severe arthritis in his back, which severely
inhibited his ability to work. He had to move studio
and home several times, and at one point he and
his family lived in an abandoned rail car. Collis
Huntington gave him a ranch in Capay, California,
but he preferred staying in a studio in San
Francisco. By 1903 he was blind, and his son
assisted him in making prints.
The 1906 Earthquake and Fire destroyed his
studio and negatives. He had planned to send his
negatives to Stanford University later in that
month for preservation. The Bancroft Library has
a photo taken of him that morning of April 18th,
escorted from his studio using a cane.
After the earthquake, he and his family moved to
the ranch in Capay. It is unclear if he was
severely depressed to the point of being mentally
unbalanced after losing his life's work, or just
unable to care for himself physically. But in 1909
his family committed him to the Napa State
Hospital, an insane asylum. He was 80, totally
blind, and could not walk. Insane asylums were
often used in the 19th and early 20th centuries by
families did not have the resources to care for
their ill elderly, and institutional healthcare did not
exist as it does today. His wife began referring to
herself as a widow. When he did actually die, it is
thought that he was buried in an unmarked grave
on the asylum's grounds.
The Argonaut, Winter 1995-1996, "Carleton E.
Watkins, Master of the 'Grand View'" by Peter E.
National Gallery of Art: http://www.nga.gov/press/2000
Journal of Social History, 1995, article by Edgar-Andre
You can see Carleton Watkins' stereoviews at http://
Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library
View from Telegraph Hill showing Vallejo and Broadway wharves, photographed by Watkins in 1867
Mission Dolores, taken from the Notre Dame girls' school across the street.
1864 view from Telegraph Hill of the Golden Gate, named by Watkins's friend John C. Frémont.
Carleton Watkins, using a cane, being escorted from his studio on April 18, 1906
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