By Bill Dobbins
In the 19th century, as more of the western part of the United States was being explored, it was hard for some people to take seriously the descriptions they heard of places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon. These seemed like exaggerated tall tales until painters and photographers began to visit these incredible landscapes and create images to record and communicate their grandeur.
One of the most important of these was photographer Carleton Watkins.
Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) is widely considered one of the greatest American photographers of the nineteenth century and arguably the most influential artist of his era. He is best known for his pictures of Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.
Carleton Watkins: Making the West American, a book by author Tyler Green, tells the story of Watkins’s influence on California, the West, photography, and art. Watkins is best known, writs Green, for pictures of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove made just as the Civil War was beginning in the summer of 1861.
“These photos by Carleton Watkins,” writes Green, ” were exhibited in New York for the first time in 1862, as news of the Union’s disastrous defeat at Fredericksburg was landing in newspapers and while the Matthew Brady Studio’s horrific photographs of Antietam were on view.”
Watkins’s work tied the West to Northern cultural traditions and played a key role in pledging the once-wavering West to Union. Motivated by Watkins’s pictures, Congress would pass legislation, later signed by Abraham Lincoln, that preserved Yosemite as the prototypical “national park,” the first such act of landscape preservation in the world. Carleton Watkins: Making the West American includes the first revised history of the national park idea since pioneering environmental historian Hans Huth’s landmark 1948 “Yosemite: The Story of an Idea.”
According to Wikipedia: “Watkins often photographed Yosemite and had a profound influence over the politicians debating its preservation as a national park. His photographs did more than just capture the national park; he created an icon. Half Dome, for example, did already exist, but Watkins’ photographs brought it to people in a way that they could experience it. It became iconic through his photographs, became something people wanted to see in person. His images had a more concrete impact on Yosemite becoming a national park than just encouraging people to visit. It is said that Senator John Conness passed Watkins’ photographs around Congress. His photography was also said to have influenced President Abraham Lincoln and was one of the major factors in Lincoln signing the Yosemite Grant in 1864, a bill that declared Yosemite Valley inviolable. The bill paved the way for the 1872 creation of Yellowstone National Park, and the U.S. National Park System in its entirety. One of Yosemite’s many mountains is named Mount Watkins in honor of Watkins’ part in preserving Yosemite Valley.“
Watkins’s photographs helped shape America’s (and the world’s) idea of the West and helped make the West a full participant in the nation. His pictures of California, Oregon, and Nevada, as well as modern-day Washington, Utah, and Arizona, not only introduced entire landscapes to America but were important to the development of American business, finance, agriculture, government policy, and science. Watkins’s clients, customers, and friends were a veritable “who’s who” of America’s Gilded Age, and his connections with notable figures such as Collis P. Huntington, John, and Jessie Benton Frémont, Eadweard Muybridge, Frederick Billings, John Muir, Albert Bierstadt, and Asa Gray reveal how the Gilded Age helped make today’s America.
Bill Dobbins is a veteran photographer and videographer located in Los Angeles who has exhibited his fine art images in two museums and a number of galleries and has published eight print and 16 eBooks, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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