Monday, May 5, 2014

Carleton Watkins

Stanford's Cantor Arts Center is exhibiting selections from its magnificent collection of Carleton Watkins photos. Many were taken in Yosemite during the 1860s; there is also a nice selection from Oregon and Washington.

Photography in the 1860s was not a matter of point, click, and upload. Watkins made colossal negatives on glass, using a collodion wet plate process that required exposing the plate quickly and developing the negative immediately in the field. Hence he had to haul a payload of glass, chemicals, and darkroom materials on mules up into then-remote Yosemite.

The results were glorious in their composition and detail, and played a major role in fostering public and political support for protecting and preserving Yosemite. Thus these photos are of historical interest not just as artwork and technology, but as political and cultural artifacts as well.

It would have been interesting to see Watkins's prints set alongside those other iconic photographs of Yosemite, by Ansel Adams. Watkins was careful in composing his pictures: he had to be, because the process meant every shot was precious. The prints often feature dark and contrasty foregrounds--water, rocks, or vegetation--with the slightly hazy, brightly lit monuments of El Capitan or Half Dome rising in the background. This is Yosemite Valley as one experiences it in person. Adams was careful about composition as well, obviously, but as the wizard of the darkroom he was after something else: a Yosemite no human eye has ever experienced, a kind of Platonic form of perfection in granite and light.

Which Yosemite is better? Both are indispensable. I am always shocked when I speak with a Californian who has never been there. Say what?

Photo source.

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