Friday, 18 May 2012

Carleton Watkins and the 19th Century American West

Yosemite from Mariposa Trail (Yosemite Valley No. 1), ca. 1865 © Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins's career was punctuated by great success and terrible tragedy. Having crossed the continent and arrived in San Francisco in 1851, by 1862 the Yosemite photographs we admire today were being exhibited in San Francisco, New York and London, and collected by luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Frederick Law Olmstead.  He ran a successful studio for two decades but went bankrupt following the Panic of 1873 and was forced to sell the rights to his own images. Much of Watkins' life work and material legacy was wiped out in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.  Following his death at an insane asylum ten years later his work fell into near obscurity for a period of some sixty years.
The effect of Watkins' Yosemite photographs, as many have noted, is sublime. Consider the image, Yosemite from Mariposa Trail (Yosemite Valley No. 1), ca. 1865.  In the middle ground, distance, and far distance are massive granite slabs of unparalleled splendor. Only two trees, the bases of which are unseen, occupy the foreground. Where is the photographer positioned, and where, by implication, the viewer? Seemingly, in the air above an abyss. Seemingly, there is no camera at all. And seemingly, as viewers we are witness to a scene so untouched, so pure, that we may just be the first to apprehend it.

The Town of the Hill, New Almaden, ca. 1863 © Carleton Watkins

That is not the case, of course. Native American groups had lived in the valley for an estimated 8,000 years. The Mariposa War of 1850-1851 resulted in the killing and removal to reservations of many Native American groups in the area, including the Ahwahnechee Indians who had lived, hunted and harvested for food in the Valley up until ten years before Watkins' first 1861 visit. In light of this, Watkins' depiction of the Yosemite as pristine, untouched wilderness is not historically accurate; nevertheless it was and in some ways still is the way Americans want to imagine the place. The notion of pure wilderness as linked with, and expressive of, the American character and destiny was very important to the American psyche at that time.  Yosemite Valley captured the popular imagination because its wildness seemed to confirm the youth and vigor of the American project; its beauty and grandeur confirmed America's strength and purity.
In Watkins' images, nature is never really spoiled by human industry, and hardly ever does human industry seem to be impeded by nature. Look, for example, at The Town of the Hill, New Almaden, ca. 1863. The settlement, through Watkins' lens, is surrounded by grandiose, apparently untouched hills that recede gently from visibility in a pleasant haze. The habitation fits nicely within the landscape, seeming to occupy just one out of a multitude of hills, and seeming to impact the surrounding environment not at all. This image contrasts dramatically with the reality that most of today's residents of Southern California experience every day: concrete everywhere, an entirely unnatural and transformed landscape where hill after hill after hill, all of which at one time resembled New Almaden, are now filled with residences, shopping centers, chain stores, freeways and gas stations. The apparently light footprint of human activity portrayed in this and most of Watkins' images was to be short lived.

Lake Ah-Wi-Yah, Yosemite, ca. 1861 © Carleton Watkins

In our own time it has become increasingly difficult to defend totalizing belief systems. We no longer adhere to the idea that the formal qualities of representation can convey any kind of truth, and it is in ideas rather than formalism that we look for beauty. Most Americans no longer believe in Manifest Destiny or the limitlessness of American power and potential. Instead of a continent stretched out before us, opportunity and possibility everywhere, and no end in sight, what many of us fear is the case today about our country, our place in the world as individuals, and the future is precisely the opposite. The frontier is long gone, our resources are dwindling, and our sense of opportunity seems to shrink with every generation. Perhaps it is no accident, then, that the resurgence in popularity of Watkins' work began in the years following the Vietnam War. As a culture, I believe we are drawn to these images today, in part, out of nostalgia. They remind us of what we had, and what we have lost.

And I think that, in spite of everything, the best of them give us hope.

Chris Engman (Foam Magazine #24/Talent)

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