Carleton Watkins: Yosemite @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 33 black and white photographic works (including 1 triptych and 2 stereoviews), framed in dark brown wood and matted, and hung against white and brown walls in the small three room Gilman space on the second floor of the museum. All of the works are albumen positive prints made from wet collodion mammoth glass plate negatives (each 18×22 or reverse), made in 1861 or 1865-1866. The show also includes 2 vitrines containing 2 books and 1 map; the stereoviews are shown on antique wooden stereoviewers in the corners of the gallery space. The prints on view were part of an earlier show of The Stanford Albums in 2014 at the Cantor Arts Center/Stanford (here); a catalog of that exhibition was published by the Stanford Univerity Press (here). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we stand in the subdued galleries of the Met and take in Carleton Watkins’ majestic chocolaty brown views of Yosemite from the mid 19th century, it’s difficult to put ourselves back in time and truly grasp how extraordinary they are. A quick scan of the rooms gives us a parade of now famous natural landmarks – massive rock formations, towering waterfalls, sweeping meadows, and meandering rivers – all places that have become landscape clichés in their subsequent overexposure. But back in 1861, when Watkins first visited the untamed valley (leaving behind his San Francisco portrait studio, with his mule train of heavy equipment, toting a custom-made camera of unprecedented size), he was venturing out into an area of such remoteness that it had only been “discovered” by California state militia a decade earlier.

The photographs that he would make during that first visit (both “mammoth” prints and stereo views) were not only astonishing for their beauty and incredible clarity, they were instrumental in changing the course of American history. In the midst of the tumult of the Civil War, and in contrast to the grim savagery of the battlefield imagery that was circulating in Washington at the time, Watkins’ Yosemite photographs captured the imagination of those that saw them, showing the glorious treasures and unspoiled frontiers that lay to the West. At a time of grave pessimism about the state of the union, Watkins’ pictures spoke to a larger set of aspirational possibilities, and that contagious national optimism led Abraham Lincoln to transfer the land in the valley to the state of California (via the 1864 Yosemite Valley Grant Act), preserving and protecting it for public use and ultimately setting the stage for the establishment of the national park system.

The sublime prints on view in this small show are a selection of works from that initial 1861 trip and a subsequent journey in 1865-1866, sequenced to recreate a visitor’s path, from the first broad entry into the valley and down to more intimate views of various scenic landmarks and specimen trees. The monumental scale of the valley was often Watkins’ most challenging visual enemy – step back too far and the landscape flattens out into a dull vista, come in too close and the towering vertical forms expand outside the frame. His consistent combination of exacting technical detail and subtle compositional balance is what gives his images their immediacy and daring vitality, and what durably separates them from the countless mundane photographs taken from similar vantage points in the many years since.

What comes through most clearly in these photographs is just how meticulous Watkins was in his organization of space and his weighing of tonalities. Often starting with a massive stone form (Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, the Three Brothers, Half Dome) or a tumbling white waterfall (Vernal Falls, Nevada Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Falls) as a central subject, he carefully constructed compositions that arranged the landscape with precision. Jutting rocks and elegant profiles were set against hazy skies, with layers of dense dark evergreens, waving meadows, and the lilting mirrored turns and shorelines of the Merced River as counterbalances to the imposing power of the formations.

A turn through the rooms here shows Watkins experimenting with a variety of subtle framing techniques. Views look up from the valley floor to capture the linear edges of the grand forms against the sky. Nearly black silhouetted foreground trees, as single jutting branches or larger clumps, condense the space like lines of perspective, drawing the eye to the middle. Long vistas are deftly divided into foreground, middle ground, and background, each with its own items of interest or contrast. Distinct layers build up from bottom to top in many landscapes, pulling the eye from the foreground grasses and expanses of flat rock upward toward the triumphant brow or misty waterfall. When manmade structures do appear in this Eden (a wooden bridge, a hotel, a fenceline), they are dwarfed by the scale of the surroundings, seemingly pushed down by the encroaching trees and rocky boulders. And Watkins’ portraits of the massive trees in the Mariposa Grove extend this mismatch of size problem to its limit, with tiny ant sized figures at the base of giants that seem to touch the skies, their perspective bent upward by the need to jam the entire specimen into the frame. Again and again, Watkins emphasizes the awe inspiring scale of the place without losing a sense of personal intimacy or crispness of detail.

Complex contrasts of texture and color provide additional methods for Watkins to control our experience of Yosemite. Shimmering leaves and grassy meadows huddle underneath inspiring landmarks (the rocks and falls often toward whiter gray, the other elements in darker shades of the palette), while the long exposures turn the moving water into plates of glass that reflect the bisected landscapes with exacting repetition. Each composition is a controlled exercise in highlight and shadow, with layers and striations of space captured in gradations of grey. There is a depth and richness to these tones that is captivating – a three image panorama from the top of the Sentinel Dome becomes a four layer sandwich, from the grey skies and white rock at the two extremes, and the darker bands of evergreens and atmospheric mountains in the middle. Similarly, the bright white mist of the various waterfalls is invariably offset by the velvety blacks of evergreens or shadowed rocks. The black and white “color” in these prints is mesmerizingly subtle and engrossing; it’s absolutely possible to get lost in any one of these images, digging around in the contrasts of foliage, or the sandy riverbeds, or the dark and light of a pile of rocks.

Watkins’ images of Yosemite were of course only one part of his larger photographic career, and this exhibit does not include any prints from either of the other so-called Stanford albums (the Pacific Coast and the Columbia River). As such, this show represents only one piece of the Watkins puzzle – an undeniably superlative one to be sure, but an in depth look at one body of work rather than something more far reaching and comprehensive. As American landscapes go, these photographs remain among the best ever made. Seeing them again was surprisingly shocking; they made me realize just how technically and compositionally sophisticated Watkins was, and how carefully he managed our collective experience of such a magical place.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. Watkins’ prints are regularly available in the secondary markets at a wide range of price points, from just a few thousand dollars for lesser known views to nearly $500000 for his most iconic vintage images of Yosemite and the Columbia River.

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Read more about: Carleton Watkins, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Stanford University Press

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by MASA/FUAM (here). Hardcover, 17.5×23 cm, 148 pages, with 128 black and white reproductions. Includes an essay by David Campany, a short poem ... Read on.

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