Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Book Review: Carleton Watkins the Complete Mammoth Photographs

An extensive biographical synopsis of Carleton Watkins and the impact of his work can be found at Tyler Green's Modern Art Notes where he reviews

Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs by Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis 

Watkins got his start as a photographer of commercial real estate. His photographs of Yosemite were enormously impressive when seen on the East coast, prompting the creation of Yosemite as a National Park and motivating Eastern painters such as Bierstadt to seek out a then-little-known Californian.  Creating the sublime view was Watkins’s signature technique:  "implying scale by placing dramatic objects — trees, rocks – in the foreground of his pictures, objects that would print darker than the massive mountains or other landscape elements in the background."
In discussing the origins of the Watkins monograph, Green mentioned collector and digital archivist Steve Heselton who launched, an indispensible online repository with JPEGs of nearly all of Watkins’ known stereoviews. It has certainly been indespensable for our Processed Views project. 
Perhaps in part because he was mostly unaware of dominant Eastern art-making trend Watkins was uninterested in the dewy, often treacly fantasia that suffused 19th-century American painting. Instead, Watkins showed the landscape as it was: Grand and beautiful, but also as a resource that was tapped. Watkins didn’t just show us beautiful views from high places, he showed the land being consumed by prospectors, being blown up and blown through by the railroads, and he showed the natural landscape being replaced by San Francisco and by the sort of massive farms that first made southern California famous. He showed the lumber mills that decimated the Western forests and the mines that tunneled underneath the mountains and the smelters that broke down the found ore. He showed how the wealthiest Westerners, Watkins’s mates in San Francisco’s famed Bohemian Club, lived on their country estates.
Watkins established the Western landscape, the real Western landscape and not the manifest-destiny-driven (or Humboldtian) fantasy of it, as the grand American thing, as the subject with which American art would have to grapple. Watkins’s insistence on showing the land as it was — not just its beauty but also the land as it was used, even defiled by extraction-driven industries such as timber, mining and agriculture — pointed the way toward truth in American art. It was Watkins who pioneered the American realism that gave rise to the crusading honesty of Lewis Hine, Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange, that led to the more nuanced revelations of the New Topographics photographers and the deadpan forwardness of Ed Ruscha. [Image: Watkins, Cape Horn near Celilo, Columbia River, Oregon, 1867. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]
Other contributors to Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photogrphs include Getty research associate Michael Hargraves, Bancroft Library curator Jack von Euw and Huntington Library curator Jennifer A. Watts.

Additional discussion about Watkins' and photographer Robert Adams' love of trees can be found at 

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