Carleton Watkins and the business of seeing the American west


(piano music) – [Woman 1] We’re in the LACMA
study center for photography and works on paper. Looking at a photograph from the 1860s, not long after the
invention of photography in the 1830s and 40s. It’s just such a treat
to see this in person. – [Woman 2] There’s a
crispness, a clarity. Almost every individual leaf, shadow. – [Woman 1] It is really
remarkable the details that he’s captured. The figures and the way
that they’re walking and what they’re carrying. The lumber in the foreground. And yet at the same time
that we have this crispness, we also have this lovely
fading back of atmosphere along the river. This is a photograph of Eagle Creek along the Columbia River. So he’s really out in the wilderness but he’s there with heavy glass plates, a portable darkroom, all sorts of chemicals. He’s lugging around a heavy
camera that he invented, that would make these
really large glass plates. – [Woman 2] During
Watkins’ time in Oregon, he made at least 58
mammoth plate photographs. – [Woman 1] And so Watkins
is taking his place alongside other photographers and artists who are creating these images of the West for people on the East Coast. Both tourists, but also businessmen. We’re talking about an area
in Oregon and Washington the the Columbia River flows through. A place where commerce was growing, where steamships were
transporting goods and people, really driving economic prosperity, the growth of the city
of Portland at this time. And so we have to imagine
these images traveling east for an East Coast audience. – [Woman 2] Absolutely. Watkins had a business in San Francisco, and with the Gold Rush and
California becoming a state, by the time he took this photograph he’s gotten a claim for
his photographs of Yosemite in California. He was interested in photographing places where there weren’t a lot of photographs. A place that he could
put his own signature on. The Transcontinental Railroad
was not finished at the time Watkins took this trip,
but it was well underway. And so business people were starting to think about the next steps. There were still northern
and southern routes of the railroad that were
gonna need to be built or completed. Recent scholarship talks about Watkins being part of that conversation in Oregon, and how they’re thinking about where other supply routes would go. So an image like this
has so much information that would be read and
understood and circulated by government officials, business
people, artists, tourists. – [Woman 1] It does tell us a lot about the Oregon Steamship Navigation Company, which helped to support Watkins’ trip along the Columbia River. The Oregon Steam Navigation
Company had the land that would be necessary
on the sides of the river to fully navigate the river. In other words where there were rapids, where there were waterfalls, you need to get the goods off of the boat, onto a railroad, and
then back onto the boat. This was an enormous business opportunity. When the West was being
explored in a way to determine not only what was there, but its geology. What could be mined. What kind of ore was there. What kind of land was arable. Should some of the land be set
aside for the National Parks, which of course comes out of this. – [Woman 2] Categories
that a contemporary viewer sometimes bring to photography, whether it’s fine art, or
whether it’s commercial art, those categories are much
blurrier during Watkins’ time, and so on a trip even
when it was sponsored by a business interest, a mining company, a railroad company, et cetera, he would take both photographs that really spoke to
the business interests as well as photographs that we can imagine were for more personal use. At the same time, the patience
that he would have taken to find the right place, he really brings that
eye and that patience and that compositional
expertise to any subject that he’s photographing. – [Woman 1] And although
Watkins clearly brought the care and consideration that an
artist brings to the landscape, it is important for us to remember that at this time in history, photographs were not considered art. They were documents. It’s not really until the first
decades of the 20th century that we really begin
to have the acceptance that photography could be art. And yet here he is
bringing an artist’s eye at a time when no one really considered what he did to be art. (piano music)

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