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Carleton Watkins Spotlight exhibition launched

May 8, 2020
Peter P Blank
Carleton Watkins. The Wreck of the Viscata. 1868.

Among the many great treasures destroyed in the April 18, 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed were the last remaining papers, glass plate negatives, and photographs still in the possession of the ageing Carleton Watkins (1829-1916). This tragic loss is deepened by the realization that days before the massive quake on April 15 Harry C. Peterson, Director of the Stanford Art Museum, had visited Watkins in his San Francisco apartment for a discussion regarding the purchase of Watkins’s material. It is uncertain what Watkins still had in his possession or what Peterson’s plans were. Much of Watkins’s life is not known due to the incompleteness of extant papers and correspondence.

Fortunately, through a more roundabout path Stanford Libraries Special Collections did come into the possession of three albums of 157 Watkins mammoth plate albumen prints: Photographs of the Pacific Coast, Photographs of the Yosemite Valley, and Photographs of Columbia River and Oregon. These wonderful works, as well as other items by or relating to Watkins, plus a PDF of the 2014 exhibition catalog, Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums, now appear as the Stanford Libraries’ newest online Spotlight exhibition, Carleton Watkins at Stanford Libraries. An introductory essay and bibliography, which includes links to full-text monographic literature available via SearchWorks (the Libraries’ online catalog), complete the exhibition to date. Eventually a fourth album, Views of Thurlow Lodge by Carleton Watkins (c. 1874), with an additional 62 albumen photographs on the mansion and grounds in Menlo Park, California of Milton S. and Mary “Mollie” Latham (the original owners of the tree mammoth plate albums mentioned above) will be added. Numerous Watkins cabinet views and stereo cards held by Special Collections will also join the site as digitization continues.

Watkins’s career as one of America’s greatest 19th century photographers parallels the growth of California as the 31st American state and its rising importance in the American economy. In tandem with this history of 19th century business enterprise, including Watkins’s personal and professional relationships with the venture capitalists of his era and the role of photography in Western economic expansionism, is a parallel narrative of photography’s relationship with the still developing American landscape painting tradition. American landscape painting conventions developed alongside those of American landscape photographers. The leading American landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), purchased a set of Watkins’s Yosemite views in 1867, and William Keith (1838-1911) traveled and worked with Watkins. Watkins’s Yosemite mammoth plate prints were on view in New York City’s Goupil gallery in 1862 and he won a prize for landscape photography at the Paris International Exposition in 1867 and a Medal of Progress at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. There is still much research to be performed on these fascinating relationships between art and commerce, painting and photography. It is hoped that Carleton Watkins at Stanford Libraries will encourage these explorations.

This Spotlight exhibition is the 101st launched by Stanford Libraries.

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