The Stereoviews of Carleton Watkins

Carleton E. Watkins

Carleton Eugene Watkins (1829-1916) is perhaps the most famous early western photographer.   He found international fame for his award winning photographs of Yosemite, San Francisco, the Pacific coast and subjects throughout the western states. Watkins is best known for his mammoth plate photographs but actually published the majority of his work as stereoviews. They represent a comprehensive look into California and the West from the 1860s through the 1890s.

Carleton Watkins was born in Oneonta, New York on November 11, 1829, the eldest of eight children.   Lured in 1851 by the opportunities of the California gold rush, he traveled to California with fellow Oneontan Collis Huntington (later to become one of the "Big Four" owners of the Central Pacific Railroad) and Huntington's wife Elizabeth.   Watkins was employed for a time by Huntington in Sacramento and by 1854 was working in San Francisco at the bookstore of George Murray.  

In late 1854 Watkins met photographer Robert Vance who had a gallery at the corner of Sacramento and Montgomery Streets, near Murray's Bookstore.   Watkins began working for Vance (probably in Vance's Marysville gallery) and it was here that he learned the photographic techniques and processes that he would perfect during his career. 1

Vance's Daguerrean Gallery - San Francisco c.1859   

By 1858 Watkins was working on his own, taking on a number of photographic commissions.   He produced photographs for evidence in trials and also documented the homes of John and Jessie Fremont at Black Point and Mariposa County.

In July of 1861 Watkins traveled to Yosemite equipped with a mammoth plate camera, which used 18 by 22 inch glass plate negatives, and a stereoscopic camera.   He returned with 30 mammoth plate and 100 stereoscopic negatives.   These photographs and later Yosemite images, established him as a master of landscape photography.   The prints helped influence the U.S. Congress to pass legislation protecting Yosemite Valley.   By 1863 Watkins was selling stereoviews of Yosemite, the New Almaden mining region, the Mendocino coast as well as views of San Francisco.

Watkins issued his early stereoviews on glass mounts and on card mounts with handwritten titles. These have come to be known as hand-signed Watkins views. Examples of Watkins glass views can be seen here. Watkins numbered his stereoviews starting first with the Yosemite series (Mendocino views were initially numbered as a separate series and were later renumbered as part of the general numbering scheme).   After about 1863, stereoviews were mounted on yellow cards with printed labels.   These were later replaced with orange card stock and printed labels.

Watkins photgraphic displays (courtesy Online Archive of California)

Watkins won many awards during his career, starting in 1865 with an award for "Mountain Views" at the Mechanics' Institute Exhibition in San Francisco.   In 1867 Watkins won a medal for landscape photographs at the Paris International Exposition and the following year started printing his stereoviews with an acknowledgment of the medal on the back of the card.

After problems with Eastern firms pirating his images, Watkins began copyrighted his work in 1867. Stereoviews were printed with copyright dates on the mount with imprinted titles and numbers.

Stereoviews were typically priced and sold by the dozen.   Pictured at right is one of Watkins imprinted boxes used for stereoviews.   This box holds two dozen views. Boxes used for one dozen views have also been seen.

In 1867, Watkins also traveled to Oregon and photographed Portland and the Columbia River area for the Oregon Steam Ship Navigation Company.   The following year he exhibited 50 mammoth prints at Shanahan's Art Gallery in Portland. 2

Trade Card of Shanahan's Art Gallery, Portland    

Shortly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Watkins purchased Alfred A. Hart's negatives of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, probably through his relationship with Collis Huntington. 3  Watkins published them under the series title "Watkins Central Pacific Railroad" using Hart's original view numbers (1 through 364).

Watkins continued to travel widely, making photographic excursions to Northern California, Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains as well as Utah. Watkins photo wagon, which served as a portable darkroom in the field, displayed advertising for his San Francsico studio.

In 1871 Watkins moved his studio to number 22-26 Montgomery Street. Located near one of his largest competitors, Thomas Houseworth, & Co, he named the establishment the "Yosemite Art Gallery".   In the mid-1870s both photographers had studios in the first block of Montgomery Street.   The location was convenient to tourists staying just across the street at the Lick House, and to the Palace Hotel at the end of the block.

While Watkins won acclaim for his artistic efforts he was not considered a good businessman and, during the financial crisis of 1875, lost his studio and negatives to creditor J. J. Cook.   Cook, along with photographer I. W. Taber, took over the Yosemite Art Gallery.   Taber began marketing Watkins stereoviews under the I. W. Taber label, although retaining Watkins original view numbers and titles.

Yosemite Art Gallery at 24 Montgomery St. (note I.W. Taber signage)

In spite of this devastating setback, Watkins began to rebuild his inventory of negatives by revisiting locations he photographed in the 1860's.   He called these views "Watkins New Series" and started numbering at 3000.   The series begins with views of Yosemite, just as his original series started.

Over the next ten years Watkins photographed much of California and the western states eventually publishing more than 2300 New Series titles.   Subjects include the Central Pacific Railroad, Sierra Nevada mining, Lake Tahoe, Big Trees, Virginia City, southern California, Arizona, the Pacific Northwest, Yellowstone, and of course, extensive coverage of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

In 1879, Carleton Watkins, aged fifty, married Frances Sneade, age twenty-two. 4 At right is an inscription from a book of Christmas poems Carleton gave to Frances in 1878.

By the mid-1890's Watkins deteriorating eyesight and other health problems impacted his ability to work. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed Watkins studio along with the negatives of his life's work.   Watkins died on June 23, 1916 at the age of eighty-seven.

Although the negatives were lost, Watkins prints exist today in many private and institutional collections.   The creation of the website is an effort to reassemble a large portion of Watkins stereoviews and to allow us to understand and enjoy his vision of the West during the second half of the nineteenth century.

For further reading see:
Stereo World article on Carleton Watkins ( March - April 1977)
Courtesy of the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum and the National Stereoscopic Association.

1. Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, "Poineer Photographers of the Far West - A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865", p 578-579.
2. "Carleton Watkins - The Art of Perception", p 217
3. Mead Kibbey, The Railroad Photographs of Alfred A. Hart, Artist (Sacramento: The California State Library Foundation, 1996), p 67
4. "Carleton Watkins - The Art of Perception", p 218


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