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Yosemite Was Saved By Carleton Watkins’ Landscape Photography

By Michelle Bird on June 20th 2014


Carleton Watkins loaded-up the mules with his portable darkroom and gigantic custom-built 75-pound camera, and headed towards Yosemite Valley. The view hasn’t changed much since the 1860s, as you can tell, but that is exactly the point.  The pictures Mr. Watkins took were the ones that inspired President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Valley Grant Act– permanently marking the land for “for public use, resort, and recreation.” Watkins’ landscape photographs are what saved the preservation of Yosemite Valley.

[REWIND: The Metropolitan Museum Of Art Releases 400,000 Images To Online Users]


Carleton Watkins

Watkins made the American West his home in the year 1849, where he landed his first job in a portrait studio in San Francisco. It didn’t take long for Watkins to make a name for himself, in a few years he had become a specialist in landscape photography; at the time, there was little competition and a high demand. “If someone was paying him to go to a site, he would take those photographs that were commissioned, but he would also take some for himself. He was able to build up a stock of images of this gorgeous area that people had only heard about in the news. When those images got to the East, his career took off,” said Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, co-curator of the exhibit “Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums,”– which is currently on display at Standford University’s Cantor Arts Center.


Pompompasos, the Three Brothers, Yosemite 4480 ft., 1865–1866,

Watkins’ was known for his “mammoth” 18-by-22-inch glass-plate negatives that could stand competition with Yosemite’s grandness. “The mammoth plates enabled him to take photographs that would rival small cabinet paintings and lithographs. By working with this larger frame, he was able to compete with different forms of visual culture,” said Mitchell. “Stereo cards can be an incredible visual experience, but the mammoth plates have this physical gravity to them and they create a completely different context than smaller prints.”

Even a century and a half later, Watkins’ photographs still hold true to the power they carried out. He’s regarded as one of the most influential photographers of the time. His captures of Yosemite are timeless, they make you feel as though you can step-foot inside them, and breathe in the fresh air of the valley.




Cascades between the Vernal and Nevada, Yosemite, 1861


Piwyac, The Vernal Fall, Yosemite, 300ft., 1861

CREDIT: All images, Courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

[via] Slate


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Michelle Bird is a Southern California based freelance photographer and writer, with a strong focus on music, editorial and portrait photography. She is the founder and creative force behind the music+culture online blog Black Vinyl Magazine, and can often be found in the photo-pit shooting the latest concerts in town. She has a strong passion for art, exploring, vintage finds and most of all animals. Connect with her through Email,
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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Barry Cunningham

    Imagine having to prepare your 18×22″ glass negatives with wet colloidion before every shot and develop them immediately in your darkroom you hauled into the mountains on muleback. Before there was Ansel Adams, there was this guy. Saying, “Amazing!”, doesn’t even begin to do him justice.

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  2. Jordan Buckway

    These are amazing!

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  3. Spencer Bunting

    The fourth pic in this article is breathtaking!!!1

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  4. Greg Faulkner

    I’ll never complain about carrying my 70-200mm again lol

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  5. Tyler Friesen

    wow! Incredible shots. Unreal depth to the images.

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  6. Jacob Jexmark

    This is what I call dedication. And modern photographers cringe just to have to lug a modern DSLR around with a few lenses…. ;)

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  7. Matt Walsh

    That’s a lot of determination to hike up the hillside with that much kit. Well worth it though.

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