San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

San Francisco, CA



Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception



Carleton Watkins, Cape Horn Near Celilo, 1867; The Gilman Paper Company Collection


In its ongoing commitment to the investigation of photography and visual culture, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is presenting the first major critical exhibition on the work of Carleton Watkins, considered by many the finest American landscape photographer of the 19th century. Organized by Douglas R. Nickel, SFMOMA associate curator of photography, Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception will be on view through September 7, 1999.

Watkins settled in San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush, taking up the still-new medium of photography in the mid 1850s. In his pictures he aspired to capture the vastness and grandeur of the American West for audiences primarily on the East Coast and in Europe. In pursuing this goal Watkins composed images that were astonishingly sophisticated and modern in appearance. Watkins made photographs that are visually immediate, lush in detail, compositionally abstract and psychologically compelling. His imagery has a uniquely visceral impact, effectively pulling the viewer into the scene by means of artistic devices such as radical framing, deep-space perspective, and intruding foreground objects -- the same devices used contemporaneously by modernist painters like Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne. Watkins' prints were impressive in size -- many were made using a specially constructed camera yielding negatives that measured 18 by 20 inches -- and displayed in ornate wooden frames, giving them the physical presence of a painting in an era when most photographs were small and confined to albums.

"In many instances these look like photographs that should have been made in the 20th century," says Nickel. "Watkins was less interested in imitating the picturesque styles of Western landscape painting than in exploring a new, more expansive type of visual encounter possible only through the optical language of photography. The fact that we live in an acutely visual, cinematic age may account for why Watkins' pictures speak to us so eloquently now. Just as photography was a fascinating new technology that pushed the envelope of perception in the 1860s, we find ourselves today in the midst of our own media revolution, as digital technologies and new imaging techniques again redefine how we perceive the world and understand images."

The exhibition presents over 150 photographs by Watkins, culled from institutional, corporate and private collections across North America. In addition to Watkins' large-format prints, the exhibition will include several immense panorama pictures -- works made of large prints placed side-by-side to orchestrate a vast visual sweep of terrain -- and many stereo views. The stereo view -- two small photographs mounted together that, when placed in a special binocular viewer, gave an amazing illusion of three-dimensional depth -- will be displayed in the exhibition not only in original Victorian-era stereoscopes, but also and more extensively in a novel interactive computer database. Photographs in all three formats were selected for the exhibition from collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Department of Special Collections, Cecil H. Green Library, Stanford University; the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley; the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal; and others; as well as from archival repositories such as the State Library of California in Sacramento and the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco. (right: Multnomah Falls, Oregon, 1867

Born in 1829 in Oneonta, New York, the son of an innkeeper, Watkins displayed a keen spatial intelligence at an early age. He arrived in California around 1851 and by 1860 was sharing a studio on Montgomery Street, then a burgeoning photography district. San Francisco was one of the most important photographic centers in the country during the second half of the 19th century, and Watkins made the city his home base for his entire photographic career. He was one of the founding members of the San Francisco Art Association in the 1870s, an organization that would later become the founding entity for SFMOMA. At the height of his career, Watkins was a leader in his field: his photographs were sought after by Ralph Waldo Emerson, helped convince Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Bill in 1864, were exhibited at the 1867 Paris International Exposition, and were later seen by Napoleon III. His Yosemite Art Gallery, founded in 1871, was one of the most lavish and extensive photographic enterprises in the world. With increased competition and the economic crash of the mid 1870s, however, the tide of Watkins' financial fortunes turned, and by the 1890s he was reduced to a poverty that had him living in a railroad boxcar. (left: Eagle Creek, Columbia River, 1867)

From the beginning, Watkins was struck by the immensity of the California landscape, and he took as his artistic goal the rendering of Western space and scale. To those outside California, reports of oversized Western natural resources seemed incredible; the colossal mountains, giant trees, expansive deserts and vast ocean defied belief. Watkins' photographs served as visual proof for the veracity of the claims, with statistical measurements of these natural wonders often accompanying the images. The desire to accommodate such expansive landscapes led Watkins to the panorama format, which extended visual perception laterally along the line of the horizon. Seven of Watkins' photographic panoramas, which when framed measure up to eight feet in width, will be on view in the exhibition.

Watkins worked for over fifty years selling photographic prints and albums to scientists, investors, mining engineers, homesteaders and tourists. Colonel John Fremont, the explorer who mapped the Far West as "the pathfinder" with his friend Kit Carson, enlisted Watkins to photograph his land and mines. It was his association with Fremont that first led Watkins to photograph Yosemite in the early 1860s, resulting in some of his most famous images. "Watkins managed to capture the physical magnitude and visual textures of Yosemite with a grace and intelligence unsurpassed today," says Maria Morris Hambourg, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who collaborated closely with Nickel on the project. The exhibition includes Watkins' spectacular and often startlingly direct views of this famous California site. In 1867 the photographer traveled to Portland, Oregon, and up the Columbia River gorge, making several images that have since become icons of Western landscape photography. As he expanded the range of his activity in the 1880s, so too did his abstract vision find new, unconventional subjects to depict for a broadening audience of tourists.

The radical way Watkins viewed the landscape derives in part from his lifelong association with the railroad; the towns and industries that arose in the West along its right-of-way became a persistent subject in his later career. Through his childhood friend Collis Huntington, Watkins became the unofficial photographer for the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads in the 1870s and 1880s and was allowed free travel along their lines. The railroad made a new kind of landscape as it penetrated the continent, and Watkins aligned his photography with the changing perceptions the train brought about.

With the exception of photography itself, the most important and popular visual technology of the 19th century was the stereo view. Watkins made more images in stereo than in any other format, inventing imagery that made spectacular use of its three-dimensional effects. In the 1850s, stereo views were a widespread, inexpensive, mass-marketed form of entertainment: a stereo viewer and basket of cards was to be found in every proper Victorian parlor.

In the exhibition, original stereo cards will be displayed, and to optimize viewing conditions for these images a separate room will contain twelve computer viewing stations that utilize cutting-edge technologies -- designed specifically for the exhibition -- to simulate the stereoscopic effect. The viewing stations will provide access to approximately 200 stereo cards by Watkins, organized by year, subject matter and region. Using special eyeglasses with LCD lenses that synchronize with the computer via a transmitter, the museum visitor will see the selected images in three dimensions. The software interface for this unusual presentation was designed by the multimedia firm Perimetre Design using stereo-imaging technology developed by the Marin-based StereoGraphics, creators of the stereo-viewing system for the Mars Pathfinder, essentially employing 21st century innovations to bring 19th-century images back to the broad public for whom they were originally created. (right: Victoria Regia, c. 1878)

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavish 228-page catalogue featuring over one hundred tritone plates -- including four gatefolds illustrating Watkins' rarely reproduced panoramas -- and 20 duotone illustrations. It also features an introduction by Hambourg, a scholarly essay by Nickel and biographical material by Peter E. Palmquist, an independent scholar and Watkins' biographer. Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception is available in paperback at the SFMOMA MuseumStore and other venue shops. A clothbound edition co-published with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., will also be available at each museum and at booksellers nationwide.


Read more about the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information on the artist cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/18/10

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