Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), the creator of the striking photographs of the remote Yosemite Valley that so inspired the New York Times critic, had moved to California around 1851 from the small New York town of Oneonta. One of many young men drawn to the West during the Gold Rush, he first worked in Sacramento as a teamster and carpenter for a dry goods establishment. In 1853 he moved to San Francisco, where by chance he learned how to photograph when asked to stand in for an absent employee in a photography studio. He soon established his own business making photographs for land dispute cases and mining interests. Following his first photographic expedition to Yosemite in the summer of 1861, Watkins’ reputation was securely established, and for the next two decades he created some of the finest American landscape photographs of the nineteenth century.

In spring 1867 Watkins opened his first public gallery and sent thirty of his mammoth prints to the Universal Exposition in Paris, where he was awarded a medal. Hired by the Oregon Steam Company, Watkins departed in July 1867 on an expedition up the Willamette and Columbia Rivers to photograph their scenic beauty as well as the company’s railways, which ran along unnavigable stretches of the rivers. The breathtaking scenery of the Columbia Gorge, considered second only to that of Yosemite, provided Watkins with many fresh subjects for his new gallery. The Columbia River series, which consists of 60 large negatives and 136 stereographs taken along the route upriver to Cape Horn, represents a high point in Watkins’ career. In addition to panoramas, he made photographs documenting subjects from different points of view in order to give viewers the sense that they too were traveling along the river.

Biography courtesy National Gallery of Art.