Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Early Photographers of the American West: 1860s–70s

If the Civil War was the greatest test of the young American republic’s commitment to its founding precepts, it was also the watershed in its history. The feudal agrarian life gave way to the dominance of the industrialized North, which now turned its well-oiled centralized organization and genius for engineering toward the West, launching across the continent wave upon wave of migration and exploration, consolidation and appropriation. The camera went along for the ride, often in the hands of one of Mathew B. Brady’s and Alexander Gardner’s well-trained field photographers such as Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840–1882) (1986.1054.19).

By the close of the Civil War, twenty-five-year-old O’Sullivan had had seven years’ experience in wet plate photography, five of them working from a van on or near the battlefield. His technical proficiency under adverse conditions and his strong constitution recommended him as a photographer for the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, the first of several exploratory surveys of the American West. Clarence King, an enterprising geologist from Yale, had convinced the government to implement a study of the geological structure and natural resources of the region west of the Great Plains and east of California, the so-called Great American Desert. From 1867 to 1872, King and his corps of young scientists and photographers mapped and described a band 100 miles wide by 300 miles long lying roughly along the route of the railroad that would link the east and west coasts in 1869.

The consummate photographer of the American West, Carleton Watkins (1829–1916), however, had absolutely no field training during the Civil War. In 1851, when he was twenty-one, Watkins left Oneonta, New York, for California, following the example of Collis P. Huntington, another Oneonta native who had moved to California to make his fortune. After a stint in Huntington’s store in Sacramento, Watkins moved to San Francisco, where he chanced into an apprenticeship with the daguerreotypist Robert Vance. By 1858, Watkins had established an independent practice, photographing mining operations and land claims for financiers who were building their careers in the lap of the new state.

In 1861, Watkins traveled with one of his patrons, Trenor Park, entrepreneur of the Mariposa gold mine, on a family excursion to Yosemite (1989.1084.1-.3), an extraordinarily beautiful valley surrounded by cliffs 3,000 feet in height. Unknown to white settlers until 1849, the valley was twenty hours by stage and mule from San Francisco. But word spread fast at the Mariposa mine, and by 1858 there were land claims, a better road, and tourists enough to support a hotel. In 1859, Charles L. Weed photographed the valley, and by 1861 Easterners had come to know of the awe-inspiring site from articles in the Boston Evening Transcript, written by the Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King.

The thirty mammoth-plate (22 x 18 inches) and 100 stereo views that Watkins took in Yosemite in 1861 were among the first photographs of the valley sent back east. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ralph Waldo Emerson received copies through Starr King, and in 1862 the photographs excited further interest when they were exhibited at Goupil’s New York gallery. It was partly on their evidence that President Lincoln signed a bill in 1864 declaring the valley inviolate and leading the way to the National Parks system.

A natural adept, Watkins soon established his own business photographing for mining interests and land-dispute cases and, by 1862, had become famous on both coasts for his dazzling views of Yosemite. Embracing both human enterprise and the natural wonders of California, Watkins created crystalline views of the West that balanced the works of man and nature in an ideal harmony we can only envy today.

Watkins combined a virtuoso mastery of the difficult wet-plate negative process with a rigorous sense of pictorial structure. For large-format landscape work such as he produced along the Columbia River in Oregon (1979.622; 2005.100.108), the physical demands of this process were great. Since there was as yet no practical means of enlarging, Watkins’ glass negatives had to be as large as he wished the prints to be, and his camera large enough to accommodate them. Furthermore, the glass negatives had to be coated, exposed, and developed while the collodion remained tacky, requiring the photographer to transport a traveling darkroom as he explored the rugged, virgin terrain of the American West. The remarkable clarity of Watkins’ “mammoth” prints was unmatched by any of his contemporaries, and by few artists today.