Name and location of repository
Level of description
- 1861 - 1885 (Creation)
Name of creator
Carleton E. Watkins, renowned nineteenth-century photographer of the American West, began his career in photography in 1854 at the age of 25. Born in Oneonta, N. Y. in 1829, Watkins relocated to California in the spring of 1851 and by 1853-1854 was living in San Francisco. There he was taught the art of photography by Robert Vance (1825-1876), owner of daguerreotype studios in San Francisco and San Jose. By 1856, Watkins had moved on to work as an ambrotypist in the portrait studio of James M. Ford (1827-circa 1877) in San Jose.
Sometime between 1856 and 1858, Watkins began operating as a freelance photographer in the San Jose and San Francisco areas and experimented with large-format outdoor photography using wet-plate collodion negatives. His largest surviving body of work prior to 1861 documents Las Mariposas, the California mining estate of Col. John C. Frémont. In 1861, Watkins traveled to Yosemite with a mammoth-plate camera. The thirty mammoth plates and one hundred stereoscopic negatives that he made during this trip were partly responsible for government protection of Yosemite as a national park and were published in Josiah Whitney’s The Yosemite Book in 1869, one of the first American books devoted solely to landscape photography. Watkins returned to Yosemite many times between 1861 and 1881 to photograph the park and even set up his own gallery there to showcase and sell his photography.
In 1865, Watkins opened his "Yo Semite Gallery" at 425 Montgomery Street in San Francisco. That same year, he won an award for "Mountain Views" at the San Francisco Mechanics' Institute Industrial Exhibition and, in 1867, won a bronze medal for his mammoth plates of Yosemite at the Paris International Exposition, earning him an international reputation as a landscape photographer. In July of that same year, Watkins traveled to Oregon to photograph Portland, Or. and the Columbia River area. Beginning in Portland, Watkins traveled south to Oswego and Oregon City on the Willamette River to photograph the area and north again across the Columbia to Vancouver in the Washington Territory. He then traveled east along the Columbia River, following the trade route of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, finally leaving Oregon in November of 1867 with fifty-nine mammoth plates and one hundred stereograph negatives. Fifty of these mammoth views were exhibited in Portland in 1868 at Shanahan’s Art Gallery, garnering Watkins much acclaim. He also won the top award that year for a major exhibit of Pacific Coast photography at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Industrial Exhibition.
In 1875, financial troubles and a nationwide economic slump caused Watkins to lose his studio in San Francisco, his gallery in Yosemite, and the entire collection of what is now known as his “Old Series” negatives. His business was sold to Isaiah W. Taber, who continued to print these negatives under his own studio imprint. However, by 1876, Watkins was up and running again, determined to re-photograph many of his famous views for what he called his “New Series of Pacific Coast Views.” As part of this series, Watkins made a return trip to Oregon in 1882, stopping at Portland and the Columbia River before continuing north to photograph the Puget Sound area of the Washington Territory and Victoria, British Columbia. He returned to Oregon again in 1883 to photograph Cascade Locks on the Columbia River, as well as other features of the river valley, and again during the winter of 1884-1885, when he photographed a winter blizzard that snowed in an Oregon Railway and Navigation Railroad train on its tracks in the Columbia River Gorge.
Carleton Watkins continued to photograph until the early 1890s, when his health began to fail. For the rest of his life, he lived in near blindness and poverty. All of his negatives were destroyed in the April 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. For the next decade, Watkins lived under the custody of his daughter and the Napa State Hospital for the Insane and died on June 23, 1916. His photographs remain some of the earliest and most well-regarded visual records of the landscape of the American West and its early settlement.
Name of creator
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Scope and content
This collection contains stereographs, cartes de visite, cabinet and boudoir cards, photograph albums, mammoth plates, and other loose prints taken by landscape photographer Carleton E. Watkins, 1861-1885. Watkins photographs that were taken before he lost his Yosemite Art Gallery studio in 1876 to Isaiah W. Taber are known as his "Old Series." Watkins photographs taken after 1876 are referred to as his "New Series." The collection contains both Old Series and New Series images and includes some of Watkins' photographs printed under Taber's imprint..
The bulk of the stereographs and mammoth plate photographs in this collection were taken during Watkins' trips to Oregon to photograph Portland, the Willamette River, and the Columbia River in 1867 (Old Series), as well as in 1882, 1883, and the winter of 1884-1885 (New Series). There are also some stereographs that were taken by Watkins on his 1882 voyage to photograph Puget Sound in the Washington Territory and Victoria in British Columbia. Other mammoth plates, cartes de visite, and stereographs depict views of places in California, including Yosemite and Mariposa County, the Farallon Islands and other scenes of the California coast, San Francisco, Round Top, Mount Lola, and Mount Shasta, as well as views of Utah taken for the Union Pacific Railroad. There are also cabinet card portraits taken by Watkins of various people, including Oregon railroad financier Simeon Gannett Reed and members of the family of Cornelius C. Beekman (1828-1915), banker from Jacksonville, Or.
The collection also contains two photograph albums assembled by Watkins and originally owned by Charles H. Prescott (b. 1839), manager of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co. from 1881-1887. One album, "Sun Sketches of Columbia River Scenery," contains images taken by Watkins during his trips to the Columbia River Gorge circa 1882-1883, and the second album, ""Great Storm of the Winter of 1884-5. Columbia River, Or.," contains images that he took during a winter blizzard in December and January of 1884-1885 that snowed in an Oregon Railway and Navigation Co. train on its tracks along the Columbia River. The collection also contains one group of stereographs entitled "Watkins' Pacific Railroad" that were originally taken by Alfred A. Hart, official photographer for the Central Pacific Railroad, between 1862-1869 and reprinted by Watkins under his own imprint after 1870.
System of arrangement
This collection is arranged into the following series:
Series A. Stereographs, 1861-1885
Subseries 1. Watkins' "Old Series" stereographs, 1861-1873
Subseries 2. Watkins' New Series stereographs, circa 1876-1885
Subseries 3. Watkins' Pacific Railroad stereographs, circa 1862-1869
Series B. Card photographs, 1861-1885
Subseries 1. Cartes de visite, 1861-circa 1865
Subseries 2. Cabinet cards, circa 1871-1875
Subseries 3. Boudoir cards, 1867-1885
Series C. Mammoth plates, 1863-1883
Subseries 1. Portland, Willamette River, and Columbia River, 1867 and circa 1882-1883
Subseries 2. California coast, 1863-1869
Subseries 3. Round Top, Mount Lola, and Mount Shasta, 1879
Subseries 4. Yosemite, circa 1878-1881
Series D. Photograph albums, circa 1883-1885
Subseries 1. "Sun Sketches of Columbia River Scenery," circa 1882-1883
Subseries 2. "Great Storm of the Winter of 1884-5. Columbia River, Or.," 1884-1885
Series E. Other loose prints, circa 1883-1885
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Related archival materials
Information on Carleton E. Watkins can be found in the following sources in the Oregon Historical Society Research Library:
Alinder, James, ed. Carleton E. Watkins: Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon. [Carmel, Calif.]: The Friends of Photography and Weston Gallery, 1979.Johnson, Joe William. The Early Pacific Coast Photographs of Carleton E. Watkins. Berkeley, Calif.: Water Resources Center Archives, University of California, Berkeley, 1960. Nickel, Douglas R. Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1999.Palmquist, Peter. Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press for the Amon Carter Museum, 1983.Terry, Richard, comp. Carleton E. Watkins: A Listing of Photographs in the Collection of the California State Library. Sacramento: California State Library Foundation, 1984.
- Processing information: Funding for encoding this finding aid was provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
- Citation: Carleton E. Watkins photographs, Org. Lot 93, Oregon Historical Society Research Library.