Carleton Watkins

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Carleton Watkins self-portrait.
"Distant View of the Domes", Yosemite Valley, California, albumen print
Minerva Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs, National Park, by Carleton Watkins

Carleton E. Watkins (November 11, 1829 – June 23, 1916) was a noted 19th-century California photographer. He is notable for his series of conservation photographs of the Yosemite Valley in the 1860s that significantly influenced the United States Congress' decision to establish the valley as a National Park in 1864.

Early life[edit]

Carleton Eugene Watkins was born in Oneonta, upstate New York. He went to San Francisco during the gold rush, arriving in 1851. He traveled to California with Oneontan Collis Huntington, who later became one of the owners of the Central Pacific Railroad, which helped Watkins later in his career.

His interest in photography started as an aide in a San Francisco portrait studio, and started taking photographs of his own in 1861.


He became interested in landscape photography and soon started making photographs of California mining scenes and of Yosemite Valley. He experimented with several new photographic techniques, and eventually favored his "Mammoth Camera," which used large glass plate negatives, and a stereographic camera. He became famous for his series of photographs and historic stereoviews of Yosemite Valley in the 1860s that helped influence Congress' decision to establish the valley as a National Park in 1864. Watkins also took a variety of images of California and Oregon in the 1870s and later. Watkins accompanied painter William Keith on at least one western expedition.

Watkins purchased the 1860s Central Pacific Railroad construction stereoview negatives from CPRR official photographer Alfred A. Hart and continued their publication through the 1870s.

However Watkins was not a good businessman. He spent lavishly on his San Francisco studio and went deeply into debt. His photographs were auctioned, following a business setback, resulting in his photographs being published without credit by I. W. Taber, the new owner. Watkins also had problems of his photographs being reprinted without permission by Eastern companies and with other photographers rephotographing the exact scenes Watkins photographed.

In 1879, Watkins married his 22-year-old assistant, Frances Sneade, with whom he had two children.

Later life[edit]

Watkins began anew with his "New Series," which included a variety of subjects and formats, mostly related to California. However, he remained poor and his family lived for a time in an abandoned railroad boxcar. His eyesight began to fail. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed Watkins's studio and negatives. In 1910 Watkins was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane, where he died six years later.


  • J. Paul Getty Museum, Carleton Watkins (In Focus) (1997)
  • Peter E. Palmquist, Carleton E. Watkins: photographer of the American West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983)

External links[edit]