Carleton Emmons Watkins (American, 1829-1916), Untitled (Rooster Rock, Columbia River), 1867, albumen silver prints; stereograph
Portland Art Museum
Carleton E. Watkins (1829 – 1916) was a noted 19th-century California photographer. He series of conservation photographs of the Yosemite Valley in the 1860’s, significantly influenced the United States Congress’ decision to establish the valley as a National Park in 1864. Carleton Eugene Watkins was born in Oneonta, upstate New York. He went to San Francisco during the gold rush, arriving in 1851. His interest in photography started as an aide in a San Francisco portrait studio in 1861. He soon started making photographs of California mining scenes and of Yosemite Valley. He experimented with several new photographic techniques, and eventually favored his “Mammoth Camera,” which used large glass plate negatives, and a stereographic camera. He became famous for his series of photographs and historic stereoviews of Yosemite Valley.
However Watkins was not a good businessman. He spent lavishly on his San Francisco studio and went deeply into debt. His photographs were auctioned, following a business setback, resulting in his photographs being published without credit by I. W. Taber, the new owner. Watkins also had problems of his photographs being reprinted without permission by Eastern companies and with other photographers rephotographing the exact scenes Watkins photographed.
In 1879, Watkins married his 22-year-old assistant, Frances Sneade, with whom he had two children. Watkins began anew with his “New Series,” which included a variety of subjects and formats, mostly related to California. However, he remained poor and his family lived for a time in an abandoned railroad boxcar. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed Watkins’s studio and negatives. In 1910 Watkins was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane, where he died six years later.