Carleton Watkins on the frontier of U.S. photography
Conventional wisdom is that the Civil War didn’t have a dramatic impact on American art. The preservation of the Union and the end of hideous intramural hostility supposedly generated an illusion of continuity, reflected in dreamy landscape painting and monumental sculpture celebrating American history and myth.
I suppose that view partly depends on how one defines “dramatic.” Since most histories of 19th century American art scan east of the Mississippi, and rarely west, the direction in which one looks also matters. A bracing new show at the J. Paul Getty Museum suggests that conventional wisdom could use a good slap upside the head.
“Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California” reveals an extraordinary artist whose work blossomed into stunning maturity in the 1860s. The disarming spiritual power of his photographs, especially those made in the Yosemite Valley, is sophisticated yet brash. And that’s very different from American landscape art that came before it.
Indeed, Watkins was California’s first major artist. Like Missouri’s George Caleb Bingham, he’s one of few great artists to be based anywhere in the West, far beyond the country’s sober artistic centers of Boston, Philadelphia and New York. The fact that a camera, rather than a brush or a chisel, was the West Coast master’s artistic instrument of choice seems only fitting -- a new medium for a new world.
Emblematic of his achievement is a large picture from 1865-1866 that shows the first view of Yosemite from the trail that begins in Mariposa, southwest of the sprawling valley. Watkins used a mammoth-plate camera whose glass negatives are nearly 18 by 22 inches, resulting in startlingly large black-and-white images. Today we’re used to huge pictures, from billboards to Imax screens; but Watkins’ big images could leave 19th century eyes gobsmacked. In the process they evoked not just paintings but the immensity of the actual Western landscape.
Watkins’ jaw-dropping Yosemite view is nearly bisected down the center. At the left and right edges, big evergreen trees tilt away from one another, sweeping toward the margins of the picture like curtains opening on a theatrical stage. A sheer cliff in the right-hand foreground mirrors another in the left-hand background, and together they echo the parting of the trees. Watkins’ brilliant composition pries open the view, as if cognizant that an audience is watching.
What is there to see? Nothing but an incalculable volume of luminous space, bounded by ancient cliffs, the tree-carpeted valley floor below and the radiant sky above. Imponderable space unfurls.
As a final masterstroke, Watkins lifts a viewer off the ground: The photograph, carefully cropped along the bottom, does not disclose where the bulky camera, tall tripod and the artist himself were standing. So the viewer drifts in space, pondering the imponderable. Loosed from terrestrial moorings, Watkins marshals art’s pictorial elements to physically embrace spatial experience on a breathtaking scale.
Throughout his career, whether photographing San Francisco, which was his primary base, or on travels to Los Angeles, Mendocino, the Columbia River or the Puget Sound, he employed this device repeatedly. Most photographs in the show were taken from an elevated spot.
Sometimes the camera is slightly raised, as if floating along just above railroad tracks or a verdant field, sweeping into an expansive distance. And sometimes it is thrillingly (if precariously) positioned, as in “The First View of Yosemite Valley From the Mariposa Trail,” which yawns deep and wide.
Even an amazing 1889 still life of crated peaches is pictured from above, looking straight down on it. Either way, a feeling of omnipotence is inescapable. Neither grandiose nor ostentatious, it is instead liberating.
Watkins doesn’t preach, injecting religiosity into the natural landscape the way so many painters among his Hudson River School predecessors did. And he isn’t a blowsy tree-hugger, either, even though numerous photographs rank as literal portraits of redwoods, Pacific madrones, California buckeyes and other species of trees.
Instead, Watkins’ best work fashions a crisp dialogue between nature and culture -- between the mute and indifferent landscape and acute human consciousness. Those are the actual “giants” of the exhibition’s title. In the wake of a tumultuous Civil War, these American landscapes are tonic -- a restoration drama.
Of course, other giants do figure into the mix, including fellow photographers Charles L. Weed and, especially, Eadweard Muybridge (who probably worked as Watkins’ assistant). Both followed his lead in selecting specific Yosemite vistas to photograph. Getty curator Weston Naef has installed the show to demonstrate relationships and distinctions among them.
Watkins was born in 1829 in Oneonta, N.Y., at the northern end of the Catskills. At 19, as Gold Rush fever erupted in the West, he left with three hometown friends -- including Collis P. Huntington, later a founder of the Central Pacific Railroad and a major European art collector. Watkins first went to Panama, then South America and, finally, in 1850, San Francisco. During the next 50 years he made thousands of photographs, but the 1906 earthquake shattered all his glass plate negatives, and the great fire destroyed his studio. Most of his images survive in just one or two prints.
The Getty’s superlative Watkins collection numbers more than 1,700 images. Among them are daguerreotypes, an early process of making pictures on small copper plates coated with silver, which Watkins apparently learned in South America. The show’s first room attributes a number of previously unidentified daguerreotypes to him, based on stylistic sympathies with later photographic prints.
The show features 151 works, plus eight stations for viewing stereographic pictures that create 3-D spatial illusions. They’re installed thematically.
After the daguerreotypes comes a room that pairs pictures of San Francisco and Yosemite -- the wicked city versus the natural paradise -- flanked by galleries that focus on Yosemite’s rim and valley. Next come juxtapositions with works by Weed and Muybridge, broad urban panoramas and Watkins’ travels along the Pacific Coast, including trips to Los Angeles in 1880 and 1891.
One disappointment is that the show has no catalog. Naef is cataloging all Watkins’ known mammoth-plate photographs for a book expected in about a year; the Getty has also just issued a slim but handsome companion volume, “Carleton Watkins in Yosemite.”
Yet the absence of an exhibition catalog, inexplicably common for Getty photography shows, is keenly felt. The show draws provocative conclusions, makes interesting connections and asserts a variety of compelling artistic attributions, but all without the traditional museum documentation one expects.
Still, this is an important and otherwise thoroughly satisfying show. How could it not be? California’s art history begins here.
J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 1. (310) 440-7300.
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