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Video transcript

[Music] 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 there's a crispness a clarity almost every individual leaf shadow it is really remarkable the details that he's captured the figures and the way that they're walking and what they're carrying that 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 during Watkins time in Oregon he made at least 58 mammoth plate photographs 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 that the Columbia River flows through a place where commerce was growing where steam ships weren't 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 absolutely Watkins had a business in San Francisco and with the Gold Rush and California becoming a state by the time you took this photograph he'd gotten a claim for his photographs of Yosemite and fornia 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 that government officials business people artists tourists 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 categories that a contemporary viewers sometimes brings 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 etc 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 that patience and that compositional expertise to any subject that he's photographing and although Watkins clearly bought 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 [Music]