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Carleton Watkins and the business of seeing the American west

The 1860s photograph of Eagle Creek by Watkins offers a detailed view of the Columbia River's wilderness. Watkins, with his self-made camera, captured the landscape's crispness and fading atmosphere. His work, both artistic and commercial, provided valuable information for business people, artists, and tourists, shaping the West's perception.

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Video transcript

(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)