Research Paper on Carleton Emmons Watkins


Carleton Emmons Watkins

Carleton Emmons Watkins was a prominent San Francisco-based photographer who first visited and photographed Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge in 1867. He traveled the upper Willamette River and the Columbia River Gorge, taking pictures of its landscapes, early settlements, and the growing railroad and steamship industry that was along the river. His photographs are the first known images that comprehensively document the mid-Columbia River from Portland to Celilo Falls. Watkins was born in Oneonta, New York in 1829. He moved to California in 1851 and established work in the studio of pioneer daguerreotypist Robert H. Vance . Watkins showed that he was a particularly good study in the art of landscape photography. He started his own photography business in San Francisco in 1858. Displeased with the limitations of using a standard-sized camera in order to capture the details of a landscape, Watkins hired a cabinet-maker to build an original bellows-format camera that could hold 18-by-22-inch, glass-plate negatives (Friedel, 2010).

One of Watkins’ most interesting achievements was his special sized stereo camera which would hold a plate 5 1/2 ” x 14.” With each exposure he created two negatives 5 1/2 ” x 7,” from which he could print any part that he wished, sometimes making two or three different stereo pairs from a single plate. Watkins stereo views are now uncommon. Almost all of the works left today are those saved by Turrill. It is thought that the most valuable are 75 glass stereos from the first Yosemite trip. One of the most appealing is the stereo view of Watkins himself. It was cropped from one of his usual 5 1/2″ x 14″ negative plates. In this self-portrait, which is one of the very few pictures that he ever allowed of himself, he is found representing a miner using a rocker. His daughter, Julia, once recalled that the picture was made only for his children (Hill, 2004).

Watkins’s first major success with the new camera came in 1861, when he photographed Yosemite at the request of the California Geological Survey. His massive photographs helped convince Congress to set up the area as a natural preserve. Photos from his later trips to Yosemite in 1865 and 1866 also won him international praise, and by 1867 Carleton Watkins was thought to be one of the premier photographers of the American West. In 1867 Watkins arrived in Portland. He was determined to enlarge the range of his work to the Pacific Northwest. Even though he took pictures of Portland, Oregon City, and Oswego, his real focal point was the Columbia River Gorge. No photographer had ever attempted to photograph the Gorge so comprehensively. Travel was complicated because there were no through roads, so the photographer went by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company’s steamships, barges, and, at the river’s impasses its railroads (Friedel, 2010).

Watkins traveled with his mammoth camera, a stereo view camera, tripods, hundreds of glass-plate negatives, a portable darkroom tent, and the chemicals and equipment needed to develop negatives in the field. He made at least 59 mammoth plates and 139 stereo views during his trip and captured some of the first photographs of now-iconic landmarks such as Multnomah Falls, Cape Horn, and Castle Rock. He also photographed the native and non-native people who lived and worked on the river’s shores (Friedel, 2010).

Despite his artistic success, increased competition in the photography market during the mid-1870s caused prices to plummet. By 1878, unable to re-pay his creditors, Watkins was forced to give them his only collateral, his original negatives. Stung by the loss, he returned to the Columbia River Gorge in the autumn of 1882 and 1883 to re-photograph the sites he had visited in 1867. He also took pictures of the new Oregon Railway & Navigation Company lines along the river, the construction of Cascade Locks, and areas of the Gorge that he had been unable to get to in his earlier trip, such as Mitchell Point and Oneonta Gorge (Friedel, 2010).

Watkins returned another time to the Gorge during the winter storm of December 1884 and January 1885, when a blizzard hit the river and trapped an Oregon Railway & Navigation Company train in snowdrifts that attained reported heights of thirty-five feet. He was likely in Portland to travel the railway’s transcontinental lines to Montana and Yellowstone, escorted by rescue crews and captured the efforts to dig out the tracks. He took some of the first recognized photographs of the snowy grandeur of the river in winter (Friedel, 2010).

In the subsequent years, Watkins’s health and finances declined, and he took on very few new photographic projects. By 1903, he was almost totally blind and unable to work. In April 1906, a devastating earthquake and fire shook the city of San Francisco and destroyed his entire studio, including all of his life’s work. Watkins never recovered from the loss and was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane in 1910, where he died in 1916 (Friedel, 2010).

Carleton Eugene Watkins is one of the most well-known early western photographers. He discovered international fame for his award winning photographs of Yosemite, San Francisco, the Pacific coast and subjects all over the western states. Watkins is well-known for his enormous plate photographs but actually published the bulk of his work as stereoviews. They symbolize a complete look into California and the West from the 1860’s through the 1890’s. Carleton Watkins was born in Oneonta, New York in 1829. He was the oldest 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 worked for a period 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 (The Steroviews of Carlton Watkins, 2010).

In 1863 Watkins took a trip to the inaccessible northern California town of Mendocino to document its flourishing lumber industry on behalf of its mill owners. In addition to making photographs of the burgeoning coastal community and its millhouses, he also focused on the area’s citizenry, indigenous wildlife, and rugged coastal geology. Conveying a view held by many nineteenth-century Americans, Watkins portrayed industry existing contentedly with nature (Watkins’ Life and Works, 2010).

In the spring of 1867 Watkins opened his first public gallery and provided thirty of his mammoth prints to the Universal Exposition in Paris. It was here that he was given a medal. In 1867, he was hired by the Oregon Steam Company, to go on an outing up the Willamette and Columbia Rivers to photograph their scenic beauty as well as the company’s railways, which ran along un-navigable stretches of the rivers. The wonderful scenery of the Columbia Gorge, believed second only to that of Yosemite, provided Watkins with many fresh subjects for his new gallery. The Columbia River series, which consists of 60 large negatives and 136 stereographs taken along the route upriver to Cape Horn, represents a high point in Watkins’ career. In addition to panoramas, he made photographs that recognized subjects from dissimilar points-of-view in order to give viewers the sense that they also were traveling along the river (Watkins’ Life and Works, 2010).

By 1869 Watkins had erected a remarkable supply of photographs and was producing a reliable income from his art. He relocated his studio to more sociable quarters in San Francisco, and in 1871 opened his copious Yosemite Art Gallery. There he exhibited 125 of his large Pacific coast views and had more than a thousand images accessible for view through stereoscopes. During these years, he traveled further afield in search of new subjects: he sailed to the barren Farallon Islands, twenty-six miles off the California coast; he photographed the geysers of Sonoma County; he traveled to Mount Shasta in the northern part of the state; and he documented the massive hydraulic gold mining operations in the Sierra Nevada foothills (Watkins’ Life and Works, 2010).

Watkins received support in his travels from his friend Collis Huntington, a principal in the Central Pacific Railroad, who offered him a flatcar to carry his van filled with photographic materials. By 1869 the Central Pacific line had pressed through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, allowing Watkins to take photographs of the wilderness landscapes that could now be seen by railroad travelers. Throughout the final years of his career, Watkins’ fortunes declined. After the banking crisis in 1875, he was required to turn over his gallery and entire stock of negatives to a creditor. Without any inventory, he began again with a New Series of photographs, which included a wide variety of subjects and formats (Watkins’ Life and Works, 2010).

With the railroad success in Southern California and Arizona, Watkins was able to travel to the resorts that were located at the end of its tracks. In California, he took pictures of peaches and other crops grown with the help of new irrigation systems, and in inaccessible parts of the West, he continued to take pictures for land records. His travels, began to be reduced by his failing health, and by his marriage at the age of fifty and the succeeding birth of two children (Watkins’ Life and Works, 2010).


Friedel, Megan K. (2010). Carleton Emmons Watkins (1829-1916). Retrieved July 31, 2010,

from The Oregon Encyclopedia Web site:

Hill, Eric. (2004). Carleton E. Watkins. Retrieved August 5, 2010, from Web site:

The Steroviews of Carlton Watkins. (2010). Retrieved July 31, 2010, from Carlton Watkins Web


Watkins’ Life and Works. (2010). Retrieved July 31, 2010, from The National Gallery of Art

Web site:

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