Carleton Watkins’ really big picture

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I’m just back from previewing the new show of photographs from the 1850s to the 1880s by California’s Carleton Watkins, opening Tuesday at the Getty Museum in Brentwood. I’ll have a review this week, but the pictures posted here will give you some idea of what’s so special about Watkins’ work.

Now that’s a really big camera. Think of it as Camera Monster.

In fact, it’s a mammoth plate camera, the kind Watkins hauled by mule cart from San Francisco and Sacramento into Yosemite Valley to make his photographs. All told, his equipment weighed close to a ton.

In photography’s early days, a 1-to-1 ratio described the relationship between a negative and a printed photograph. Watkins wanted his landscapes to rival paintings, which meant they had to be big. Really, really big. His mammoth photographs, some of which you can see framed in the background, are nearly 2 feet on the longest side.


I took these pictures with a point-and-shoot digital camera, measuring 2.25-by-3.5 inches and weighing in at 6 ounces. No mule cart needed to haul that up the Getty’s hill.

-- Christopher Knight