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Carleton Watkins - Photographing Early California

by Susan Saperstein

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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 rail operations.

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 attract investors.

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 Paris.

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. Palmquist

National Gallery of Art: /exhibitions/watkins/index.htm

Journal of Social History, 1995, article by Edgar-Andre Montigny

You can see Carleton Watkins' stereoviews at http://

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library

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View from Telegraph Hill showing Vallejo and Broadway wharves, photographed by Watkins in 1867

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Mission Dolores, taken from the Notre Dame girls' school across the street.

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1864 view from Telegraph Hill of the Golden Gate, named by Watkins's friend John C. Frémont.

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