introduction

Carleton E. Watkins
Photographs

Timothy o' Sullivan

William Henry Jackson

John K. Hillers

Frederick I. Monsen

Edward S. Curtis

Maison Bonfils

Felice A. Beato
Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916), while neglected after his death, has recently been rediscovered as one of the finest photographers of 19th century America. Traveling from his home in up-state New York, Watkins arrived in San Francisco in 1851. After three years as apprentice in a daguerreotype studio, in 1857 he opened his own studio, which he operated for almost fifty years. In 1861, on his first trip to Yosemite, he made the largest photos yet taken in California (18 x 22 inch mammoth plates). These pictures were influential in influencing Congress to preserve Yosemite as a park in 1864. From the 1860s through the early 1880s, Watkins served as photographer for several expeditions of the California State Geological Surveys. In 1875 he went bankrupt, losing his studio and its contents; the following year he began a "New Series of Pacific Coast Views," by rephotographing his favorite sites.

During decades of award-winning work throughout the west, Watkins photographed mines, farms, railroads, ports, cities, missions, ruins, estates, and natural landforms. Compared to some of his colleagues, he took very few photographs of Native American scenes, with the principal exception of the ruins at Casa Grande, Arizona. After more than a decade of ill-health, Watkins again suffered the loss of his entire studio contents, this time due to the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Seriously unbalanced, Watkins was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane in 1910, where he died.

Phoebe Hearst was a major collector of Watkins' work. In 1894, she hired the photographer to document her estate in Pleasanton, but ill-health caused Watkins to leave the commission unfinished after a year of work. Her 140 Watkins pictures in the Hearst Museum form the core of a collection of about 400 photographs that she donated in 1904 (including those of O'Sullivan, Jackson, Hillers, and Beato).