Car­leton Watkins

Mak­ing the West Amer­i­can

Foreword Reviews - - Spotlight Reviews Climate Change -

Tyler Green, Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press (OC­TO­BER) Hard­cover $34.95 (576pp), 978-0-520-28798-3

Car­leton Watkins may not be a name known to con­tem­po­rary artists and art crit­ics, but his ex­cep­tional pho­to­graphs of the Amer­i­can West, taken dur­ing the mid- to late-1800s, “did more to make the West a part of the United States” than any sin­gle Amer­i­can, writes critic/his­to­rian Tyler Green. This ex­ten­sive bi­og­ra­phy of Watkins, com­plete with a wealth of black-and-white re­pro­duc­tions of his pho­to­graphs, had to be painstak­ingly con­structed from a wide va­ri­ety of sources, since Watkins’s own doc­u­men­ta­tion was de­stroyed in the 1906 San Fran­cisco earth­quake.

Green’s yeo­man­like ef­fort to tell the story of Watkins is re­warded by his own ac­ci­den­tal dis­cov­ery of a sur­pris­ing fact: Green’s great-great-grand­fa­ther, W. H. Lawrence, was ap­par­ently an in­vestor who aided Watkins in reestab­lish­ing his ca­reer af­ter a bank loan went bad. This co­in­ci­dence not­with­stand­ing, the story of how Watkins came to pho­to­graph land­scapes in Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon, and Utah is both fas­ci­nat­ing and prophetic. He de­vel­oped a cam­era “so ad­vanced that his peers and com­peti­tors would need most of the 1860s to catch up.” His pho­tog­ra­phy was used by sci­en­tists to study and teach, and it in­flu­enced other artists. Some of his work (the pic­tures he took of Mount Shasta in Cal­i­for­nia, for ex­am­ple) “stands alone” to this day. His pho­to­graphs even helped open up the West, writes Green: “Since nearly the start of Car­leton Watkins’s ca­reer, his work had mo­ti­vated Amer­i­cans to visit Cal­i­for­nia.”

Green’s clearly writ­ten chrono­log­i­cal nar­ra­tive traces Watkins’s life and ca­reer. His in­clu­sion of many of Watkins’s most no­table pho­to­graphs en­riches the por­trait of a pho­tog­ra­pher whose work left an in­deli­ble mark on an ex­pand­ing coun­try. It is a tes­ta­ment to Watkins that his pho­to­graphs are just as stun­ning more than 150 years later. This is a book to be ap­pre­ci­ated both tex­tu­ally and visu­ally.

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