Carleton Watkins, an early photographer of the American West, was a friendly man who came to a sad end. An exhibit of his work at the Fraenkel Gallery in Union Square explains that he came to photography by chance. Like many, he was drawn west by the Gold Rush and found part-time work at a portrait studio. He enjoyed the craft, soon began capturing landscapes as well as taking portaits, then discovered Yosemite, a virtually-unknown, difficult-to-access wilderness, 24 hours by train from San Francisco. Watkins lugged anenormous camera-- it took mammoth 18" by 22" plates -- plus tripods and a portable darkroom on trips to Yosemite; his photographs introduced the world to Half Dome, Vernal Falls, Yosemite Falls, and the Grizzly Giant.
But Watkins began to go blind. In the 1906 earthquake and fire, his negatives were destroyed. He never recovered from these twin disasters, and died ten years later in a mental institution in Napa.
Luck came posthumously to Carleton Watkins. Last year a flat file full of Watkins photos turned up in a New England library. Some seemed to be the only extant prints of negatives that were destroyed more than a century ago. They're all on display now at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. It's a fitting venue: the very first show there, 30 years ago, also featured newly-discovered Watkins photographs and gallery owner Jeffrey Fraenkel is the author of a book on Watkins.
Watkins's Yosemite photographs show crisp shadows in the foreground and dusky distant landscapes. Those grand views are unencumbered by people not because of point-and-shoot gymnastics, but because there weren't any tourists there yet. A photo of misty Yosemite Falls, taken from Glacier Point feels quiet and remarkable for having not been taken from a parking lot. But this collection isn't nostalgic; it's historic. Watkins's photographs brought the people and the roads and the parking lots. They helped inspire President Lincoln to protect the area decades before Ansel Adams took his famous photographs there.
The exhibit shows the world as Watkins saw it, as he was attempting to capture the famous and beloved American landscape for the first time with a new art form. There is something moving about seeing the very first photographs of now-familiar and treasured scenes.
Carleton Watkins: Discoveries runs through December 30, 2009 at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco.