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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Carleton Watkins

el Capitan, Yosemite Park, California, 1861,
Carlton Watkins
We all think of sitting in our living rooms watching the "idiot box" as something of a 20th century phenomena. Well, guess what? It's not. Americans in the last quarter of the 19th century could do it too. In fact, they had a certain advantage over our high-tech electronic contraptions. They could view their "shows" in 3-D! Granted, there was no color, and no sound, and no brilliant illumination, but they could peer into an attractive, two-foot-tall wooden cabinet, turn a knob on the side, and view a surprisingly realistic "movie" of San Francisco Bay or Yosemite right from their victorian parlors. Although it was closer to a modern-day Rolodex than television, or even the movies, it was surprisingly advanced for its time. Buyers could choose from eighteen different models averaging about $23 in price (the equivalent of several hundred dollars today). It was all the brainchild of the pioneering photographer, Carleton Watkins.

Watkins' camera, definitely not for amateurs.
Watkins was born in 1829, at a time when photography hadn't even been invented yet. He got his start in San Francisco in 1853 as an assistant in a portrait photo shop. When we think of landscape photography, especially that of Yosemite, we think first of Ansel Adams. Watkins was taking outstanding, large-scale photos of Yosemite long before Adams was even born. In fact, some of the equipment Adams used, Watkins invented including the stereographic camera used to create the 3-D photos which amazed and delighted victorian armchair travelers. Dissatisfied with the quality of photos from existing box cameras of the Civil War era, Watkins had a cabinet maker build an enormous piece of equipment (below) capable of handling wet glass Collodion plates as large as 18 by 22 inches.

Watkins' custom camera--no wonder
he needed a railroad car.
It wasn't easy. Watkins' camera and glass plates (four pounds each) weighed hundreds of pounds. Moreover, the photos had to be shot and developed while the plates remained wet, which usually meant within a time span of no more than a half-hour to forty-five minutes. For the would-be landscape photographer, this entailed carrying with him his own portable darkroom to some of the most remote but beautiful places on earth. The gear was so heavy, bulky, and fragile it would fill a railroad boxcar, which is exactly what Watkins used. But in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with railroads probing even the most inaccessible corners of the country, this was no problem. He even got the railroads to support his efforts.

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, you can see his art. You can even peer into his victorian motion picture viewer and see why someone decided television (even without 3-D effects) would be a marked improvement. 

Watkins' studio and most of his fragile glass plates were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Despondent, Watkins (then 78) is seen being led from his studio in advance of the fire. A few years later he was commited to an insane asylum where he died penniless in 1916.


  1. That is *not* Watkin's camera :)

    1. It would appear that the sources are in conflict, though mine (below)

      seems somewhat garble due to translation. Thanks for pointing out the discrepancy.