Many of those who today view Ansel Adams's now ubiquitous photos of Yosemite fail to realize that, in taking these shots, Adams was literally following in the tracks of earlier and often more skilled photographers. These nineteenth century pioneers had traveled and worked in Yosemite under far more arduous conditions than Adams himself ever experienced. Foremost among these was Carleton Watkins. In fact, it was Watkins's photos that were in large part responsible for passage of the 1864 Yosemite Grant, the first U.S. law to permit designated public lands to be set aside for preservation.
The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Carleton Watkins: Yosemite does a great deal to set the record straight regarding Watkins's reputation and is an acknowledgement of his legacy. It contains 36 of his monumental photographs taken during the course of two journeys to Yosemite. The works themselves, created using the difficult wet-collodion method, are a tour de force of photographic technique and would be worth seeing no matter what their subject.
Watkins first visited Yosemite in 1861, He had hitherto worked as an assistant to the daguerreotypist Robert Vance in San Francisco before opening his own studio and had in the field already taken stereoscopic views at the Almaden Quicksilver Mines. The Yosemite project was far more ambitious. In an era when the area was still virtually inaccessible, Watkins somehow managed to pack in hundreds of 18x22" glass plates, the largest then available, and while working coat them with a wet emulsion that was tricky enough to apply even in a studio setting. The great advantage to the wet-collodion method, one that kept it in use even after the introduction of the dry plate process, was the former's ability to capture even the most minute detail. Watkins's contact prints have therefore a sharpness that would be impossible to replicate through the use of conventional film even had it been available at the time.
In 1864 Watkins again returned to Yosemite, on this occasion under the aegis of the California State Geographical Survey which had hired him as its expedition photographer. Though Watkins continued to employ the wet-collodion process, his work from this second visit was distinguished by the use of wide angle lenses that created a more panoramic effect.
One of Watkins's most important accomplishments was to determine the vantage points in Yosemite from which photographs could best be taken. Adams and other photographers literally stood in Watkins's footsteps when taking their own later shots. But Watkins was there first and it was he who discovered the iconic scenes that would so often be recorded in the following years. Among the best works shown at the exhibit were Tasayac, the Half Dome (1865-1866), Washington Column (1865-1866), Pompompasos, the Three Brothers (1865-1866), and Tutocanula, El Capitan (1861).
Watkins did receive some degree of recognition during his own lifetime. According to his Smithsonian biography:
"In 1868, Watkins was awarded a medal for landscape photography at the Paris International Exposition. In 1873 he received the Medal of Progress award at the Vienna Exposition, and in 1876 he exhibited his pictures at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and at the Chilean Exposition. He associated with California's intellectual and artistic elite."
However, although Watkins was always known for his pleasant personality, his life did not end well. He suffered bankruptcy in later years as well as ill health that left him almost blind. Much of his work was lost when his studio burnt to the ground in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He was so devastated by this setback that he was declared insane in 1910 and eventually died in 1916 at the Napa State Mental Hospital.where he was buried in an unmarked grave.
The exhibit continues through February 1, 2015.