Carleton E. Watkins (American, 18291916)
Albumen silver print from glass negative; 15 3/4 x 20 5/8 in. (40 x 52.4 cm)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005 (2005.100.109)
When Watkins traveled up the Columbia River, he photographed both the natural and manmade landmarksthe rocky outcrops and cascades, and the small towns, mills, and docks along the way. His path followed that of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, and as he photographed not only the company's route but also its facilities, he may have been working either on commission or with a speculative eye for the company's business. One hundred miles upstream from Portland, Celilo was the farthest reach of Watkins' travels during the four-month excursion. It would be easy to surmise that the centrality of the rails in this photograph is evidence of Watkins' business agenda. But in the absence of confirming data, one might instead interpret the picture as a visual metaphor for Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was destined to span the continent with its sovereignty. The artful balance Watkins achieves between nature and man's incursion into naturebetween the valley etched in the land by the river and the railroad laid down alongside itsuggests that whether he saw Cape Horn as a commercial opportunity or as a symbolic representation of a national doctrine, he also recognized it as a providential place of aesthetic and moral harmony that provided the opportunity for a pictorial expression of a perfect state of grace.