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Yosemite Reading for Summer


  • Carleton Watkins in Yosemite, Weston Naef
  • Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs, Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis
  • Carleton Watkins: Making the West American, Tyler Green

For those of us without a reservation at the Ahwanhee (now called The Majestic Yosemite Hotel), these Carleton Watkins books are for you—a ravishing wilderness, page by page, on a scale that is truly majestic, and which, nose to our work, we can forget is only 200 miles east from downtown San Francisco. Here’s dreaming without the crowds—three books for the cool of a San Francisco July to kindle a sense of awe through magisterial pictography and the story of a pioneering artist—one of the first photographers of Yosemite in post-Civil War America.

The first book, Carleton Watkins in Yosemite, features 49 reproductions of Yosemite landscapes taken between 1861 and 1880. They are referred to as his mammoth-plate photographs because they required large, heavy glass plate negatives about 18 x 22 inches in size. These photographs were shown to President Lincoln, who was impressed enough to declare the Yosemite Valley within the public domain to protect its beauty for all.  It is also these photographs that may prompt your own recall of the very first time you arrived in Yosemite and tried to take it all in. The book itself is just the size to fit into a daypack for a day’s wandering.

The second book presents a fuller catalog. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs is a dense and completely extraordinary gift of images and history extending far beyond Yosemite—10 pounds of reproductions and cataloging notes of Watkins’ 1,273 known mammoth-plate photographs. This is likely one of the heaviest books in the San Francisco Law Library collection, but only a feather compared to the 2,000 pounds of photography-making equipment, which included a specially-made oversized-camera, the glass plates, chemistry equipment, and a dark-room tent—all of which Watkins hauled with wagon and mule to every precipice and every spot on the valley floor for each Yosemite expedition and to many other places. Organized into 10 chapters, this catalog includes not only the complete Yosemite images, but also Watkin’s lesser-known work, such as his mining photographs, the San Francisco pictures (taken when Twin Peaks was uninhabited and the Cliff House newly built), a Pacific Coast series that includes Mendocino, Oregon, other coastal areas, and other Bay Area landscapes like San Mateo and Santa Clara, a series on the Franciscan Missions, a few portraits, and even some court-evidence photography made for boundary disputes. All of which to say, it is still hard to beat Plate 1—an image of The Grizzly Giant, a giant sequoia in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove standing 210 feet tall, with a cluster of tiny people pictured at its base like carved wooden toys, or Plate 38 of North Dome. You will find your own favorite—or many. The plates are completely absorbing: water, stone, trees, sky, dimensions, space, and history.

Finally, Carleton Watkins: Making the West American offers a broader view. It contains not just the images, but a different perspective across the grain of art, culture, and history—what the author calls a horizontal history: “…the impact artists have outside art, such as on their world and on events that continue after their careers and lives…an artist’s impact on a nation.” It’s just the kind of book that requires a hammock—a well-written narrative, illustrated along the way, that shows how Watkins’ work embodied not only beauty, but also power and import, and become a prime influence on making the West as important as the East. This is the story of how Watkins and his art saw the West and gave it to the nation.

In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed a vast amount of Carleton Watkin’s negatives and archives. These books survive to collect what’s left and offer these images for fresh appreciation and delight.

All three Carleton Watkins book are available at the San Francisco Law Library.

If you are still unsure where to start, start here:

Peaks & Perils: the Life of Carleton Watkins, a four-minute animated biography of the artist and his work, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which has 25 Carleton Watkins photographs  in their collection, but none currently on view.

A podcast with the author, Tyler Green, about his work, Carleton Watkins: Making the West American is available at: https://manpodcast.com/portfolio/no-364-tyler-green-on-carleton-watkins/.

Images from the Getty Collection of Carleton Watkins photographs can be viewed on a smaller scale on their website, and downloaded, with some restrictions.