Considering Watkins

The core of this exhibition is drawn from the one hundred and fifty-seven “mammoth-plate” mounted albumen photographs produced by Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) held by the Department of Special Collections in the Stanford Libraries. They were originally housed in three albums purchased from Watkins by Milton Slocum Latham (California Congressman, Governor, and Senator), likely between 1876 and 1879 as a gift for his wife, Mary “Mollie” Latham. It is not known if the Lathams selected prints for later binding or acquired the three albums as pre-selected sets.(1)

The mounted prints possess a self-evident magnificence as artifacts, exemplifying necessary technical skills and masteries of representational and artistic strategies that are well beyond our 21st century familiarity. They also hold considerable research value as the substantiations of a host of individual and societal 19th century aspirations, evidentiary proof of ambitions long since dispatched. To guide our prospective efforts in recovering a sense of these vanished desires, even if only partially, this Spotlight presentation makes the photographs available in their original album groupings -- Photographs of the Pacific Coast, Photographs of the Yosemite Valley, and Photographs of Columbia River and Oregon -- as well as additional material by or related to Watkins’s career. Also provided is a downloadable PDF of the catalog that accompanied the 2014 Cantor Arts Center’s exceptional exhibition of many of these photographs, Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums (the catalog substantially funded and co-published by the Stanford Libraries).

Pacific Coast album. No. 21. Magenta Flume, Nevada Co., Cal. (c.1871), albumen print, ~15 1/2 x 20 in.
Yosemite Valley album. No. 3. Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point (1865-66), albumen print, ~15 1/2 x 20 in.
Columbia River and Oregon album. No. 17. Cape Horn, Columbia River (1867), albumen print, ~15 1/2 x 20 in.

Watkins produced these prints from 1861 to 1876, a sixteen-year period that saw rapid, tumultuous, changes in California, the West, and the United States. When studying historical artifacts such as Watkins’s photographs we often think in terms of comparable historical markers. This may help provide a framework for examining the richer contexts in which said artifacts and these markers resided. Using the three albums as a first pass at siting Watkins in his moment we note the following. The first of these photographs are from the Yosemite Valley album, created in the summer of 1861. By then the Gold Rush 49ers had transformed California, the new state just commencing its second decade. The first transcontinental telegraph line was completed, with President Abraham Lincoln receiving the first telegraph message ever transmitted from California, over two thousand five hundred miles away. That same summer of 1861 also saw the First Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, one of the first major battles of the Civil War and the largest and bloodiest battle to date in America.(2) Watkins’s trip to Oregon at the behest of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company took place in 1867 and resulted in the photographs found in the Columbia River and Oregon album. William Cody was then slaughtering buffalo to feed the construction crews of the Kansas Pacific Railroad (which led to his sobriquet, “Buffalo Bill”). That same year Chinese railroad workers on the Central Pacific went on strike on the eastern slopes of the Sierra, demanding a reduced workday to ten hours, shorter shifts in the dangerous mountain tunnels, and the end of abusive behavior by their overseers. The Central Pacific management starved the strikers into submission.(3) The latest known date for one of the photographs in this three abum set is 1875-76, a picture from the Pacific Coast album of the front facade of the Convent of Notre Dame in San Jose (which as an institution perhaps held special interest for the Lathams). That year Custer and his troops met their end at the Battle of Little Big Horn in Wyoming, “Wild Bill” Hitchcock was shot and killed in a poker game in Deadwood, South Dakota, and Alexander Graham Bell made the world’s first telephone call to his assistant, simply stating, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.

Yosemite Valley album. No. 31. Yosemite Falls (1865-66), albumen print, ~20 x 15 1/2 in.
Yosemite Book (NY: Bien, 1868). Plate 10. Yosemite Falls, albumen print, ~8 1/4 x 6 1/4 in.
Yosemite Guide-Book (Cambridge: University Press, 1869). Plate 1. Yosemite Falls, woodcut by J.W. Orr, ~7 1/8 x 9 1/2 in. (sheet).

How do we consider these mammoth-plate albumen photographs? Is seems wrong somehow to ascribe to them, in their majestic scale, the usual 20th or 21st century conventions of a photograph as depicting a moment, a thin slice of time, as recounting an event. These pictures feel more like heavy chunks than slices, more like viewing a bygone creature through the density of amber. They embody the resolve required to handle the massive camera Watkins had built to house the four pound, eighteen by twenty-two inch glass plates that served as the supports for his collodion emulsions. The chemical divinations necessary to produce these glass plate negatives and later the fifteen by twenty inch albumen prints demanded remarkable constancy and persistence. Watching a steam locomotive power up a mountain grade in the Sierras, riding twin rails of indelicate steel spiked into thick crossties would have revealed a similar expression of 19th century American resolution and tenacity. These photographs reveal the awe that Watkins must have felt before the immensity of such wide-ranging natural grandeur, display a sense of the enormously rich opportunity so readily apparent to him and others in the West’s transparent abundancy, and ultimately expose an era’s appetite for total and complete control and consumption of all they picture.(4)

Peter P. Blank, Photography Curator, Special Collections, Stanford Libraries


(1) For additional information on how these albums came to Stanford, see John Mustain’s essay, “Notes on the Stanford Albums,” in the pdf of Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums (2004), p. 18-20 (located under the “The Stanford Albums catalog” tab in this exhibition’s main menu). This date range for the albums is based on the assumed date of the latest print in the albums, 1875-76 (“Convent of Notre Dame, San Jose”) and the year that the Lathams departed the Bay area, 1879. To help locate the albums’ story within a Stanford University context, note that Milton Latham ran for governor in 1859 as a “Lecompton” Democrat (pro-slavery) and defeated John Currey, the “Anti-Lecompton” Democrat and Leland Stanford, Republican. Leland Stanford ran again for Governor in 1861 and won. The Spotlight exhibition, “The Stanford Family,” contains considerable material on the Stanford family.

(2) The photograph “Washington's Birthday event and pro-Union rally, San Francisco” (shown in this exhibition’s Browse groupings under “Additional Watkins material”) depicts a significant event in California’s push and pull between those with Northern vs. Southern sentiments, a major rally in San Francisco in support of keeping California in the Union fold. It is attributed to Watkins and dated Feb. 24, 1861 by Tyler Green in his Carleton Weston: Making the West American (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018): 74-80.

(3) The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford (CRRW), and its related Spotlight exhibition “Chinese Railroad Workers Project”, seek to give voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad helped shape the physical and social landscape of the American West. Between 1864 and 1869, thousands of Chinese migrants worked at a grueling pace and in perilous working conditions to complete the project. A key text in comprehensively presenting this history is The Chinese and the Iron Road: Building the Transcontinental Railroad, Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editors, with Hilton Obenzinger and Roland Hsu (Stanford University Press, 2019).

(4) The theme of natural resource extraction is a constant in Watkins’s photographs due to the commissions he received from those seeking to lure financial backing for a host of commercial ventures. Photographs of sequoias and redwoods can be seen as both paeans to nature and depictions of board feet in the raw. The hydraulic mining photographs in Photographs of the Pacific Coast were likely commissioned by the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co. Many of the works in the Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon were produced for the Oregon Steam Navigation Company as well as the Oregon Iron Company. The considerable scale of the mammoth albumen prints created by Watkins perfectly suited the enormity of the landscapes and the magnitude of the financial opportunities available. See the Spotlight exhibition, “Mining Maps and Views,” for additional visual materials relating to Western mining from 1849 to the turn of the century. The Historical Atlas Map of Santa Clara County (1876) (shown in this exhibition’s Browse groupings under “Additional Watkins material”) is an amazing relic of 19th century Bay area boosterism and includes lithograph views of a number of scenes also photographed by Watkins (and seen in Photographs of the Pacific Coast), including the quicksilver (mercury) mining works of New Almaden. Mercury was an essential material for the extraction of gold from ore