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Carleton Watkins's Bright Past
At the National Gallery, Photos Lit by the Lamp of Destiny

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2000; Page G01

The skies are empty in 19th-century photographs. Wet-plate chemicals couldn't pick up blue. Mathew Brady's battlefield bodies bloat under a blank and godless sky and John Murray's Taj Mahal has a secular poignancy with no heaven to rise toward.

At the National Gallery now, Carleton Watkins's heavenless California of the 1860s and '70s is scientific, materialist, manifest and destined. His pictures were both art and artifacts for Victorian audiences transported by both the tree-stump rawness of new railroad civilization and the redwoods of ancient and receding wilderness.

The accident of skylessness conveys the materialism of America, land of opportunity, with infinite fresh starts a God-given right. Beneath the gray of the missing sky, the railroad steel, rivers and fir trees shine in a sunlight that surprises you--it's the feeling of a day in a beach house when you see the clouds thinning and say: "Looks like it's burning off." Things seem to glow of themselves, and redemption seems just around the corner.

Skylessness also means that Watkins's world of waterfalls, Yosemite vastness, dirt-street San Francisco and the neat, new wooden mills and mine buildings ends at the horizon. It has a diorama you might have made as a Brownie.

He shows amazing facts arranged in direct, contained compositions that put the subject in the center. These pictures never want to leap out of their dark wooden frames--the same sort of frames he sold his pictures in during his bright but brief heyday in San Francisco.

Born in 1829 and raised in Oneonta, N.Y., Watkins went to Sacramento around 1851 amid the national panic known as the California Gold Rush. He worked as a carpenter, then a store clerk.

In 1854, at a portrait studio in San Francisco, he filled in for a photographer who'd quit without warning. Three years later he was working freelance and taking outdoor pictures. He worked on commission, documenting mines and ranches for courtroom evidence. He took pictures of John C. Fremont's Mariposa estate to lure capital from European investors.

He built a mammoth camera that held 18-by-22-inch glass plates, and bought a wide-angle Grubb Aplanatic Landscape lens that produced conspicuous perspective and clarity.

He became successful, respected and then celebrated. Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz said his pictures were "the best illustrations I know of the physical character of any country." Watkins was praised by Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote of "a perfection of art which compares with the finest European work." In 1864, his photographs helped persuade Congress to outlaw commercial exploitation of Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove.

Watkins traversed the wilderness with assistants, a dozen mules and a ton of equipment. He won awards in France and America. He sold prints to the public. He mingled with the rich. But he was a terrible businessman, losing his Yosemite Art Gallery and a lot of negatives to a creditor in 1875. He recovered, but in 1895 he had to move his family into an abandoned railroad car. Friends bailed him out, but then he lost everything again in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1910, he was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. His wife began to refer to herself as a widow. He died in 1916 and was buried in an unmarked grave on the hospital property.

He was forgotten by art historians until the last 25 years or so. Now, critics are calling him the greatest landscape photographer of the 19th century, in the same way that Walker Evans was recently called America's greatest photographer. (This is silly and provincial. Who is Italy's greatest 15th-century painter? Germany's greatest 19th-century composer?)

Watkins left no diaries or writing to explain his aesthetics. He may not have had any conscious sense of art as art. He once said in a court deposition that his goal was to find "the spot that would give the best view."

We're left with little to think about but Watkins's pictures.

They are mysterious and powerful, souvenirs of the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, and aesthetic triumphs despite Watkins's commercial constraints and lack of education.

He seems to show you California as the pioneers saw it. Civilization and nature have equal value, an idea almost impossible to grasp after so many decades of ecology-inspired self-loathing. "View in Weber Canyon, Utah" is as beautiful for its railroad bridge as it is for the river and the rising of dry hills out of shadow and into sunstruck heights. Watkins nowhere offers comment on the squalor of civilization or the poignant sublimity of a threatened wilderness, in the manner of 20th-century photographers, or 19th-century philosophers, for that matter.

Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson--on and on--debated the conflict of civilization and nature, a conflict summed up later in the title of Leo Marx's great work of cultural history, "The Machine in the Garden." For intellectuals back then, this debate could be resolved by science, which they saw as full-immersion baptism in the laws and mysteries of nature, rather than a manipulative intrusion. Or it could end in the doctrine of sublimity, which found spiritual magnificence in everything from the locomotive to Yosemite.

With his spare, mechanical Yankee modesty, Watkins eschewed conspicuous spirituality. His Yosemite pictures--"El Capitan," "View From the Sentinel Dome, Yosemite" or "Yosemite Falls (River View)," for instance--were meant to show astounding facts rather than icons or sacraments in the manner of Ansel Adams.

Would they have been more sublime with the blue skies and clouds that Manifest Destiny painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church installed over their mountains? (A few Watkins pictures show clouds, but usually they were hard to capture, being so much brighter than the land beneath. In France, Gustave Le Gray mastered a trick other photographers failed at: photographing clouds with another exposure and then laying it over the landscape.)

Nowadays, the facts are still important--not the fact of a Yosemite Valley, but the fact of the philosophy that both Watkins and his audience brought to it. These pictures are a sort of midden heap of pioneer culture, showing mills, trestles and mining sheds shining in their tidy raw-lumber newness amid forests and peaks, all of them equal in their mere physical presence.

And then, of course, Yosemite, which had existed in the minds of San Franciscans only as a rumor of wonders until Watkins brought back his glass-plate negatives and printed them on albumen paper so insensitive the printing lamp was the sun. His audience was amazed at both the sights and the fact that he could bring them back from such wilderness. They must have been like the first photographs taken on the moon, brought back as evidence and record, not as art.

But to the modern eye--maybe especially to the modern eye--they are art. Critics debate how this frontier carpenter could have foreseen the rigorous simplicity of modern design.

As a professional documentarian, he kept his pictures obvious. People rarely appear, except to provide scale. He often shot down at his subjects, pulling the foreground and background together to give his pictures both drama and a hint of both medieval and modern flatness. Surely Watkins had seen enough drawings of classical architecture that he understood the value of proportion in one mass next to another.

Simple contrasts appealed to Watkins--water and dry rock, horizontal and vertical, along with the perspective of a gently curving railroad track in "Cape Horn Near Celilo." Here, as elsewhere, he was using the photographer's never-failing "winding road" device, whether the winding was being done by a railroad, a river or a picket fence in "The Church, Mendocino."

Late in his career, he photographed "Late George Cling Peaches"--just a box of 24 peaches set on its side. We see modern flatness and seriality. He probably saw a box of peaches, though it's hard to believe he didn't see the Eros in their clefts, and texture that can make your mouth water.

Looking at all these prints, it's easy to forget that most of Watkins's work was done for stereo viewers. A few old-style viewers stand in the middle of rooms, and at the end of the show a whole room of computer screens and goggles simulates the experience of Victorian stereoscopes.

Here, the sensation of the shoe box diorama is most powerful. Three dimensions required pictures with objects carefully placed to lead you from foreground to background. These trees or rocks look like cut-out silhouettes, however, although one is obviously closer or farther away than another. The backgrounds--mountains, say--seem oddly flat, as if they'd been pasted on the back of the shoe box. The 3D trick has yet to turn from quick thrill into art, in stereoscopes or movies.

Take the same composition and flatten it into a print and you have a picture that forces your mind to reconstruct its depth. The foreground trees become elements of a composition, rather than optical tricks. Composition in perspective is also composition in abstract flatness, as Renaissance art demonstrates.

So many of Watkins's images are simple to a very modern extreme, such as "Sugar Loaf Islands, Farallons," showing rocks rising from surf that blurs into a mist during his long exposures. The mist adds a mythical or primeval touch, as if these rocks were rising from the sea like King Arthur's sword from the lake. Art is born of limitation, not infinite possibility.

And then, in so many pictures, there is the large blank element that later on, after the invention of more sophisticated film, would be sky and clouds. In Watkins, it's merely a compositional element he used to balance the shapes and textures below, as in the jagged field that balances the trees, stream and stone in "Lower Cathedral Rock."

Out in the big-sky country, the sky, you might say, was the limit.


"Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception" opens today at the National Gallery and runs through May 7. The exhibition, in the West Building, includes more than 90 photographs. There are also six computer viewing stations designed to reproduce the experience of viewing stereographs, a popular Victorian pastime in which two near-identical photographs are seen through a binocular viewer to create an illusion of three-dimensional depth.

The National Gallery, between Third and Ninth streets at Constitution Avenue NW, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. For information, call 202-737-4215.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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