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The first great California artist photographed San Gabriel Mission 140 years ago

Carleton Watkins, "Untitled (Mission San Gabriel)," circa 1880, albumen silver print.
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

Around 1877, Carleton Watkins loaded his mule-drawn wagon with a hefty glass-plate camera and bulky processing equipment and headed out from San Francisco. He was a man with a plan.

The first artist of international stature to emerge in California, he intended to photograph the 21 Franciscan missions of Alta California, built a century before when the state was a remote province of New Spain. He ended up shooting 17, most represented with multiple views.

For the record:

4:44 PM, Jul. 14, 2020An earlier version of this column said the mission is in Alhambra. It is in San Gabriel.

Among them was Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, an imposing edifice near the border with Alhambra and east of Cal State Los Angeles — towns whose names underscore the region’s Spanish ancestry.

The mission, founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1771 for the forced colonial indoctrination of the indigenous Tongva people into the Catholic faith, suffered incalculable damage in a devastating fire early Saturday. The timber roof and sections of the interior were destroyed.

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The cause of the blaze is as yet unknown. Some suspect arson, given the nationwide reckoning over racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. More than one Serra statue on the West Coast has been the focus of recent protests.

Because security had been increased around the mission’s grounds in the last two weeks, others wonder about a building renovation project that was nearly complete. Visions of catastrophe 15 months ago at Notre Dame de Paris came rushing back.

The landmark cathedral in the French capital suffered horrific damage when its centuries-old timber roof caught fire during restoration work. The cause of that blaze is still unknown, with current speculation focused on sparks from an electrical short circuit or a workman’s cigarette.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron did a sharp U-turn, announcing that the historic structure would not be crowned with a new, modern spire, as he had once proposed. Instead, the 1859 version designed by French Gothic Revival architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, familiar from millions of photographs, will be reproduced as closely as possible.

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The ambitious Watkins project to photograph all the California missions was never finished. (Henry Chapman Ford, a painter based in Santa Barbara, published a rather humdrum set of etchings of all of them in 1883; several, although not San Gabriel, were also the subject of Ford’s popular and widely reproduced watercolors and oils.) The photographer’s travels up and down the state with cumbersome equipment on less than adequate roads was interrupted and the plan set aside.

Henry Chapman Ford, "Mission San Gabriel," 1883, etching and drypoint.
Henry Chapman Ford, “Mission San Gabriel,” 1883, etching and drypoint.
(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

But, when he picked it up again around 1880, Mission San Gabriel was on the docket. The photograph shown here is not among Watkins’ best, but it is revealing.

Watkins placed his camera’s tripod in a tilled field, establishing a space of human endeavor as the vantage point from which the mission is seen. A low horizon fills just over half the image with flat, empty sky, underscoring the rural landscape’s spatial openness.

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A long, tall, bulky, shed-like building is planted firmly in the middle distance. The edge of the structure’s left rear-corner anchors it in the composition’s exact vertical center.

The artist has further framed the building between two upright, vertical forms. Most prominent at the left foreground is a tall palm tree, which rises out of the same tilled soil in which the photographer stood. To the right, midway between the palm and the building, a wooden pole of indeterminate purpose rises beside a long, rambling wooden fence.

Together they provide essential scale for the mission in an otherwise wide-open landscape. The building’s relative enormity — a place of shelter in the vast natural world — is cleverly emphasized.

They possess other metaphorical meanings too. The palm is a classic Christian symbol of immortality — Ford employed the same iconic device in his etching of San Gabriel — the palm’s Middle Eastern ancestry tracing back through ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Paired with the fence pole, they together speak of human industry within which the framed church resides.

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Watkins’ photograph asserts the essential virtue and reward of work, both for parish and parishioner — even as the backbreaking labors of the indigenous people who were likely responsible for the mission’s actual construction are erased. The photograph is very much an interpretive document about the building of America.

The timing matters. Watkins’ bold and elaborate 1877 project to record all the California Missions was launched in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. centennial, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine — the nation’s first world’s fair-style extravaganza — had just been held in Philadelphia. One in five Americans was said to have traveled to see it. Watkins sent his now-famous photographs of Yosemite for display, and unsurprisingly, he won a medal.

The West Coast was as far from that East Coast spectacular and all its industrial razzle-dazzle as it was possible to be. Spain, rather than Britain, France or Germany, occupied the West’s memory bank. Wielding the newest, most forward-looking artist’s medium — a camera — rather than paints or etching plates, Watkins soon zeroed in on its centennial history.

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Born and raised in upstate New York, he hadn’t moved west until he was nearly 20. He saw his new home with fresh eyes. Watkins’ photograph of the century-old Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, like others in the series, inserts the past into the future. California’s distinctive history gets squarely embedded into a progressive American story.


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