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Influential Early Photographer of the American West Explored in Exhibition at J. Paul Getty Museum

Carleton Watkins: From Where the View Looked Best
February 15 - June 4, 2000

November 15, 1999

LOS ANGELES, CA--Acclaimed for setting the standard for generations of landscape photographers, Carleton Watkins (American, 1829-1916) created striking, painterly photographs that ennoble the rugged beauty and sharpen the stirring power of the 19th-century American West. He was so respected as an artist that the first mountain in Yosemite Valley to be named after a living person is called Mount Watkins. Carleton Watkins: From Where the View Looked Best, an exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum from February 15 to June 4, 2000, will examine Watkins’ daring composition in photographs of landscapes, cities, and commercial enterprises in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona from the 1860s through the 1880s.

Through 63 photographs from the Getty’s definitive collection, the exhibition will provide an introduction to Watkins’ life and to the work that established his international reputation. Its size, quality, and variety of subjects make the Getty’s collection of Watkins photographs one of the strongest in any museum. It recently was enriched by the acquisition of 24 photographs from the Harry C. Peterson collection that will be exhibited for the first time.

The photographs will be arranged to show Watkins’ growth as an artist, especially apparent in his treatment of the same subjects at different times in his career. Also featured will be 20 individual photographs and two extraordinary large albums from the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., that have never before been publicly displayed.

Weston Naef, curator of the Museum’s Department of Photographs since its inception in 1984, organized From Where the View Looked Best and comments, "This exhibition presents an imaginative and skillful photographer who ranks at the top of his profession, yet was virtually ignored for almost a century. Watkins’ genius at creating bold compositions from natural chaos are sure to have special meaning for Southern Californians."

In 1975, Naef organized the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition that brought Watkins’ work to a large public audience. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West was the first exhibition to include Watkins since the 1800s.

From Where the View Looked Best coincides with a retrospective Watkins exhibition, Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, which originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will be on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. during the run of the Getty’s exhibition. From Where the View Looked Best complements the SFMoMA exhibition by focusing on the importance of Southern California as a center for studying Watkins’ work, bringing to light two exceptional, yet relatively unknown, collections.

From Where the View Looked Best will include a section that highlights Watkins’ relationship with John C. Frémont, who was the Republican candidate for U.S. President in 1856, and his wife, Jesse, who changed Watkins’ life by introducing him to writers and artists. She is believed to have been the one who inspired Watkins to visit Yosemite Valley, where he made his first masterpieces in 1861.

Another focus of the exhibition will be what Watkins called his "New Series," featuring photographs created after a catastrophic national financial collapse between 1873 and 1876 cost him his life’s work. The New Series included many new subjects, but Watkins also returned to the locations of his "Old Series" photographs, such as San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, and remade them from a new perspective.

In depicting the relationship between nature and humankind in some of the first photographs of frontier America, Watkins’ work influenced the national understanding of what defines the West. When he first photographed it, Yosemite was not yet a tourist destination and was known to most Easterners only through the verbal reports of awe-struck visitors. Watkins’ photographs were instrumental in having the region declared a national preserve by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

The works on view will reveal how, during a prolific 50-year career, Watkins anticipated the 20th century in important ways. He foreshadowed photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams by producing rich, stately portraits of the grandeur of the rockbound coast and the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, especially in Yosemite Valley. He also influenced painters. The exhibition title, From Where the View Looked Best, is derived from a statement Watkins himself made to describe his approach to composition—an approach so strong that painters such as Thomas Hill (English/American 1829-1908) and Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902) used his photographs as sources. He also had concerns for interplay between surface pattern and spatial dimensions, as would a painter.

Watkins also was mechanically innovative. To make photographs he felt were deserving of the grand scale of his subjects, he designed a special camera to hold 21" x 18" glass negatives. As the archetypal American expeditionary photographer, Watkins was prepared to travel constantly and resourcefully transported his very large camera, sheets of glass and photographic chemicals into places sometimes accessible only by foot or on horseback.

The process of choosing exactly where to place his camera in relation to his subject was central to Watkins’ art. In Yosemite Valley from the Best General View (about 1865-1866), a moving vista of the breathtaking valley set off by a tall, spindly conifer, his treatment of the tree provides a valuable clue about how deliberate and experimental his compositional choices were. By positioning the camera so that the base of the slender tree appears to grow from the bottom edge of the picture, he sacrificed its top but was able to place the miniaturized Yosemite Falls at the visual center of the picture. The tree is in the immediate foreground and slices from top to bottom the vast distance behind it. It serves as a sort of needle on a gauge by which the viewer is to judge the incomprehensible distance across the valley.

In addition to portraying the beauty of natural environments, Watkins’ work illuminates the destructive aspect of human progress. Many of his clientele were entrepreneurs who employed Watkins to document their sawmills and mining operations, so From Where the View Looked Best will include photographs such as Malakoff Diggings, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, California (1871), in which a steel pipe violently cuts across a forest-lined gorge undergoing destructive surface mining. The pipe fed a network of hoses whose nozzles directed water at the gravel hillsides for gold extraction. The jets of water are miniaturized behind the pipe in Malakoff Diggings in the same way Watkins miniaturized Yosemite Falls behind the tree in Yosemite Valley from the Best General View.

Impoverished and infirm, Watkins was rediscovered around 1900 by Harry C. Peterson, who formed the largest private collection of Watkins’ photographs. A number of items, many the only surviving prints from the negatives, were acquired from the Peterson Collection by the Getty Museum between 1996 and 1999, and will be displayed for the first time in this exhibition.

From Where the View Looked Best is prepared in cooperation with the Henry E. Huntington Library.

Related Events
Douglas Nickel, curator, Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Thursday, March 9, 2000 at 7 p.m.
Harold M. Williams Auditorium

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The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts, and European and American photographs. The Museum's mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.