Watkins, Carleton Eugene

Watkins, Carleton Eugene, 1829–1916, America's premier 19th-century landscape photographer, b. Oneonta, N.Y. Watkins created images that helped define the American West for his contemporaries and that continue to resonate with a modern audience. Drawn to California (1851) by the gold rush, he learned photography in San Francisco, and in the late 1850s began photographing outdoors and opened his own business. He documented San Francisco's growth, made pictures of gold mines, and in 1861 first traveled to the Yosemite valley, where he photographed for the next two decades. Employing a huge, custom-built camera and a stereoscopic camera, he photographed Yosemite for the U.S. Geological Survey (1866–71), pictorially traced the new routes of the Central and Southern Pacific RRs, and made photos of the Columbia River and other often remote locations in the West.

Watkins published several portfolios in the 1860s and 70s and operated a gallery devoted to his work. In the late 1870s, however, he suffered financial reverses and was forced to relinquish control of his negatives. Subsequently, he again traveled the West, taking and retaking many views, but his stock was largely destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Poverty stricken and blind, he spent his last six years in a hospital for the insane.

See his Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon (repr. 1979) and Photographs, 1861–1874 (repr. 1989) and W. Naef and C. Hult-Lewis, ed., The Complete Mammoth Photographs (2011); studies by P. E. Palmquist (1983), A. Rule, ed. (1993), and D. R. Nickel (1999).

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