Museum Home Past Exhibitions Dialogue among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California

October 14, 2008–March 1, 2009 at the Getty Center


Slideshow: Zoom in and explore Watkins's photographs.

In 1850, at the age of 20, Carleton Watkins is believed to have arrived in California from New York via South America. He embarked on a life in photography that began auspiciously during the gold rush (which started in 1849) and ended abruptly with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire that destroyed his negatives. In between those historic moments, Watkins witnessed an era in which a recurring theme was the enormity of all things in the West. He photographed the expansive western landscape with its miles of coastline, vast natural resources, colossal trees, and the monoliths of the Yosemite Valley using an oversize mammoth-plate camera.

In the 1860s Watkins's Yosemite photographs brought him fame from as far away as Paris, but a decade later he experienced a painful financial reversal. In the end, he died a pauper in 1916 after a life that brought him into dialogue with the many "giants" of his era. The photographs he left behind provide a unique personal vision of the birth and growth of California.

Placer Mining Scene / attributed Watkins
Placer Mining Scene, attributed to Carleton Watkins, about 1850–53

Mining Scenes and Daguerreotypes

After arriving in Sacramento in 1850, Watkins worked delivering supplies to the mines during the gold rush. As he traveled throughout the region, he applied his new photography skills by making daguerreotypes (an early photographic technique using silver-coated, polished copper plates). In 1852, he is believed to have taken up photography full time, making daguerreotypes as a freelance "outdoor man" for established studios in Sacramento, Marysville, and San Francisco.

Among the most important photographs created in California before about 1855 are more than 100 daguerreotypes of buildings and landscapes, the majority of which have not been attributed. Many represent the San Francisco Bay Area and the mother lode regions northeast of Sacramento, where Watkins lived from 1850 to 1853—a fact that geographically positions him in the right place at the right time to have been their maker. This exhibition compares select daguerreotypes by unknown makers with securely identified photographs by Watkins. On the basis of style and other circumstantial evidence, it is possible that Watkins may have made many of the daguerreotypes.

Yosemite Valley, 'Best General View,' No. 2 / Watkins
Yosemite Valley from the "Best General View," No. 2, Carleton Watkins, 1866
learn_more Compare this image to another made from the same vantage point by Watkins's contemporary Charles L. Weed.


Watkins first visited Yosemite Valley in the late 1850s and then returned to Yosemite several times in the 1860s and 70s with a new mammoth-plate camera designed to expose collodion-on-glass negatives that were 18-by-22 inches in size. With this equipment, he created the pictures that soon brought him international fame.

Watkins was not the only photographer who made images of Yosemite. Charles L. Weed and Eadweard Muybridge both followed Watkins into Yosemite, and the photographers often re-created one another's views. This exhibition explores the visual dialogue in Yosemite between Watkins, Weed, Muybridge, and the unidentified camera operator for Thomas Houseworth and Company, who may have actually been Watkins.

Cypress Tree, Point Lobos, Monterey County / Watkins
Cypress Tree at Point Lobos, Monterey County, Carleton Watkins, 1883–85

Pacific Coast

Watkins was best known for his photographs of Yosemite, but he also took his camera to the silver mines of Nevada and Arizona, and up and down the Pacific coast. Throughout his career he applied his understanding of the elements of landscape as art. His early work with mining subjects proved to be excellent training for his eventual vision of landscape as a powerful counterbalance to the fragility of human existence. He harnessed the elements of visual form—line, shape, mass, outline, perspective, viewpoint, and light—to enliven often static motifs in nature.

Watkins photographed the Monterey Peninsula in the 1880s, recording the scenery in a continuously unfolding progression along Seventeen-Mile Drive, which began and ended at the Hotel Del Monte. Near the hotel, Watkins created this image of a native cypress—windblown and with its roots exposed—clinging to the side of a rocky cliff. Many distinguished photographers, among them Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, followed Watkins over the years along this same stretch of coast, photographing similar subjects.

See Also

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