How Photographer Carleton Watkins Helped Preserve Yosemite

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Transporting two thousand pounds of glass plates, chemicals and other equipment into the Sierra on the backs of mules, Carleton Watkins became the first artist to photograph the Yosemite Valley. A collection of his photos housed in the libraries at Stanford University are on display until Aug. 17 at Stanford’s Cantor Center for the Arts.

The video above and slideshow below provide glimpses into this amazing work and the remarkable life of the San Francisco-based photographer who was credited with helping move President Abraham Lincoln and Congress to pass the Yosemite Preservation Act. Yet within a decade, Watkins began to suffer a series of business reverses that plagued him to the end of his life and at one point forced him to live with his family in a boxcar in Oakland. The parallels to today’s Bay Area artists are unmistakable.

The text below by former LIFE magazine photo editor Sean Callahan, himself a photo historian and Watkins devotee, describes the far-reaching impact of Watkins and other pioneering photographers of the American West.

With the Civil War over, America could get back to fulfilling its manifest destiny of exploring and taming the continent. Photography played an important role in America's growth. Landscape photographers began to capture the American wilderness with high resolution images that rivaled the precise brushwork of the Hudson River School of painters in everything but color.

Albert Bierstadt, Looking Up the Yosemite Valley, ca. 1865-67
Albert Bierstadt, Looking Up the Yosemite Valley, ca. 1865-67

America was only a hundred years old, and while Europeans could hang prints on their walls of classical ruins and ancient cathedrals and point to them as their heritage, Americans could not. America's heritage lay in the land that they had so recently claimed. By extension, the visual representation of that landscape by photographers became part of 19th century America's cultural heritage.*


Carleton Watkins' generation was awed by the spectacle of nature they beheld. The names they gave the natural features reflect an almost religious reverence for place. The immense trees and towering peaks were their churches, their substitute for the cultural icons of old Europe.

All photos by Carleton Watkins, courtesy of the Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University.

Watkins viewed the Valley from approximately the same direction as Bierstadt’s painting, shown above. While the painter worked from the valley floor, the photographer climbed to the top of Inspiration Point (in winter!) to give a better sense of the vastness of the scene before him. One of the intentions of these images was to represent the power of God on high (represented by Nature) relative to the insignificance of man.

For the nation to expand westward it needed an infrastructure (easily navigable trails but, increasingly, railroads) and the basic information on western topography, geology and biology was needed to determine how these new lands would sustain a population of settlers and entrepreneurs. It fell to the government to gather this information which it did with a number of survey expeditions where photography played a key role.

The best of these photographers, whose work we continue to admire today, made pictures that satisfied two masters: their employers and themselves as visual artists. When you look at their work, first imagine the rigor they applied to presenting the facts before them in a clear, analytical way for it to be useful to the government scientists and engineers. Then look at these documentary records as well executed photographs, made under difficult circumstances, and you will see that they are also remarkably creative visual statements. Their photographs had to please both constituencies and they did.

*There is an interesting book, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West by Martha Sandweiss, who teaches at Princeton University. Good insight into how photographers like Watkins created the narratives we hold dear about the West.

Sean Callahan is a former reporter and picture editor at Life magazine. He went on to create the award-winning American Photographer magazine in 1978. In 2002, he began teaching the history of photography, most recently at Syracuse University.