Carleton Watkins

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Carleton Watkins self-portrait (enlarged to show detail)
"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 photographer in 19th-century California. He captured a 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. He also photographed scenes of Oregon.

Most of his photographs feature landscapes or architectural features, but Watkins also photographed John Muir, Eadweard Muybridge and Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) Chief Engineer Theodore D. Judah.

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.


Watkins' interest in photography began when he was an assistant in a San Francisco portrait studio; he 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 (18 by 22 inches (46 cm × 56 cm)),[1] 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' photographs through the Columbia River Gorge were memorable and the Oneonta Gorge and waterfalls were named in reference to his hometown.[2]

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

Self portrait of Watkins engaged in "primitive mining" at "the Rocker" in Calaveras County, 1883. Albumen silver print

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.


  1. ^ Michael S. Gant, "Size Matters", Metro Silicon Valley, May 14, 2014, p. 26.
  2. ^ "Oneonta/USA". Greater Oneonta Historical Society. Retrieved 2014-09-09. 


  • 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]