Carleton Watkins 01.09.09

AUTHOR: MICOL HEBRON 10.14.08-03.01.09 The J. Paul Getty Museum

Carleton Watkins’s biography could be fodder for an epic movie. In the mid-nineteenth century, he traveled widely as a young adult, was a pioneer in the nascent technology of photography, created images that foreshadow numerous twentieth-century photographic greats, trekked through the great frontier with a mammoth plate view camera, worked tirelessly for fifty years, and died in poverty and obscurity in an asylum after nearly all of his negatives were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. This exhibition, organized by veteran curator and Watkins specialist Weston Naef, features an impressive selection of the thousands of images Watkins captured of the western United States during its pivotal moments: the gold rush, Manifest Destiny, the Industrial Revolution, the completion of the transcontinental railroads, the burgeoning mining industry, the birth of the many western states, and the establishment of its national parks.

Watkins’s evocative and beautiful images portend Ansel Adams’s sublime compositions of Yosemite by fifty years and presage the topographic landscapes ruined by industry depicted in Robert Adams’s works. However, Watkins’s photographs also replace the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, so favored by European photographers of his era, with the transcendental monoliths of the Half Dome and Three Brothers. North Dome, Mirror Lake (Fully Reflected) Yosemite, No. 75, 1865–66, features an anachronistic foray into abstraction. Using bodies of water to create perfectly mirrored compositions, Watkins captures the inversion of the image as it appeared through the ground glass of his camera. His visual meditations on singular trees, as in Pacific Madrone, 1861, and the stunning, formal austerity of a box of peaches in Late George Cling Peaches, Kern County, 1889, leave little doubt that his early efforts helped legitimize photography as an art form in California.

All Images © Micol Hebron, 2016