Carleton Watkins Photography

Carleton Watkins

American (1829-1916)

CARLETON WATKINS, "The Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls, from Glacier Point Yosemite," 1878-1881, albumen print from wet collodion, 15 1/8" x 21 1/4"

CARLETON WATKINS, “The Half Dome, Vernal and Nevada Falls, from Glacier Point Yosemite,” 1878-1881, albumen print from wet collodion, 15 1/8″ x 21 1/4″

CARLETON WATKINS, “Yosemite Falls 2630 Ft.”, 1861, albumen print, 15 7/8” x 20 5/8”

CARLETON WATKINS, “Yosemite Falls 2630 Ft.”, 1861, albumen print, 15 7/8” x 20 5/8”

Biography | Bibliography

Carleton Watkins was born in 1829 in the small upstate New York town of Oneonta. The eldest of eight children, his father ran a local hotel. One of Carleton’s closest friends in Oneonta was Collis Huntington who would later become one of California’s “Big Four” railroad magnates. Indeed, when Watkins traveled to California in 1851 at the age of 22, his first job was in a Sacramento store which was owned by Huntington.

In 1854 Carleton Watkins, having moved to San Francisco, was hired by photographer R. H. Vance to operate one of his galleries. In addition to instructions concerning the gallery, Vance also passed on some basic information about photography. By 1861 Watkins was working for himself as a landscape photographer. 1861 was also the year in which Watkins made the first of seven photographic trips to Yosemite, the results of which would make both Watkins and Yosemite famous.

In 1876 and again in 1880, Watkins was employed by his friend Collis Huntington to travel the length of the Southern Pacific Railroad line and photograph various sights along the way. Among the resultant photographs, many of which were taken in Kern County, were several of the recent architectural wonder, the Tehachapi Loop.

In 1881, Carleton Watkinscwas employed by James Haggin, another friend who would also send him to Kern County. Watkins and Haggin had met in 1873 when they were members of the San Francisco Art Association. Haggin had subsequently engaged Watkins to photograph mines that he owned in Montana and Nevada. In 1881, however, the object to be immortalized was water.

James Haggin and his brother-in-law Lloyd Tevis had acquired a great deal of land in Kern County during the 1870s but land without water was of little value. In 1881 Haggin and Tevis were involved in a major legal battle with Henry Miller and Charles Lux concerning irrigation versus riparian rights to the Kern River. Watkins was asked to photograph the Haggin / Tevis irrigation projects and this assignment produced eight large albums of photographs which were used in the ongoing legal contest.

It was not until 1888 however that a settlement was reached regarding water rights in Kern County. After going through a trial, an appeal in the state supreme court and a period of vote buying in the state legislature, the legal combatants decided in the end to share the water. This decision increased the value of land in Kern County and Haggin decided that an advertising campaign with nice photographs was in order. (During this period Edward Beale was considering the possibility of selling his Tejon Ranch. Beale, like Haggin, decided to employ Watkins to photograph Tejon Ranch to its best advantage.)

On July 7, 1888 the Kern County Californian informed its readers that “Mr. C. E. Watkins, the eminent photographer of San Francisco, is in Kern County taking views of various ranches and picturesque scenes.” The Californian also stated that Carleton Watkins “will visit any place desired. His charge is only $6 per dozen for the 8X10 size, and others in proportion.”

Carleton Watkins had arrived in Kern County in June of 1888 and he would spend two hot months photographing not only landscapes and ranch scenes for Haggin, but also the homes and gardens of various Kern County residents as well as buildings in the downtown area of Bakersfield such as the Southern Hotel.

In November of 1888 the results of Watkins work, at least in part could be purchased at Maude’s stationary store in Bakersfield. Bound albums were selling for $30, while single photographs were priced at 50c. Haggin and Tevis, who would form the Kern County Land Company in 1890, began using their Watkins photographs in brochures and in Eastern Newspapers in a campaign that would continue for the next decade.

During the 1890’s while the Kern County Land Company prospered, Carleton Watkins began to suffer failing eyesight. By he turn of the century he was nearly blind. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed his gallery and its contents, including photographs and negatives. Carleton Watkins died in Napa State Hospital at the age of eighty-seven on June 23, 1916.

In 1988 the Kern County Library Foundation, with the assistance of the Kern County Historical Society and Mr. Curtis Darling, purchased a 100 year old album of photographs taken by Carleton Watkins. This album “Photographic Views of Kern County California,” was donated to the Beale Memorial Library. The Watkins’ photos may be seen in the Local History room of the Beale Library. Examples of this work can be seen on the Kern County Library home page.

– John Walden, Local History Librarian, Beale Memorial Library, Historic Kern, September 1992.

Sometime between 1849 and 1851, Carleton Watkins left his home in New York state for the California gold fields. In 1854 he worked as an operator for Robert H. Vance’s daguerrean gallery in San Francisco where he first learned the daguerreotype process. After learning the collodion process in 1858, Carleton Watkins opened his own gallery called the Watkin’s Yosemite Art Gallery. He made several trips to Yosemite Valley and to the Northwest and Southwest, and by 1867 he was considered to be one of the best of the California landscape photographers.

Carleton Watkins won many medals over the years and he was especially known for his mammoth-plate landscape views of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. His large 16″x20″ photographs capture the sublime beauty of the west with remarkable detail. Over his 50 year career he also took many photographs of western cities, mining camps, orchards and ranches.

Carleton Watkins left us with an amazing and large body of photographs that are not only remarkable for stunning compositions, but also for a sense of history that is only possible through a photograph. In 1906 his gallery and most of his work was destroyed by the great San Francisco earthquake. Fortunately he sold his photographs to tourists and collectors during his lifetime and his work is well represented in smaller formats such as stereo cards and cabinet cards. His larger mammoth plates are harder to find. No more than 20 prints of any one mammoth plate negative are known to exist. Carleton Watkins’ photographs can be found in most major museums


James Alinder, David Featherstone, Russ Anderson, Carleton Watkins: Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon, San Francisco, CA: The Friends of Photography, 1979.

Thomas Weston Fels, Carleton Watkins: Photographer, Williamstown, MA: Williams college/Clark Art Institute, 1983.

J. W. Johnson, The Early Pacific Coast Photographs of Carleton Watkins, Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1960.

Douglas R. Nickel, Maria Morris Hambourg, Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999.

Peter E. Palmquist, Martha A. Sandweiss, Carleton Watkins: Photographer of the American West, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.

Peter E. Palmquist, Carleton Watkins, Photographs, 1861-1874, Troy, MI: Bedford Arts, 1989.

Amy Rule, Carleton Watkins: Selected Texts and Bibliography, Oxford, England: Clio Press Ltd., 1993.

Richard Steven Street, A Kern County Diary: The Forgotten Photographs of Carleton Watkins, 1881-1888, Bakersfield, CA: Kern County Museum, 1983.