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Major Getty Exhibition Showcases the Work of American Photographer Carleton Watkins
Carleton Watkins, American, 1829–1916, Oso House, Bear Valley, 1858-1860. Salted paper print 33.2 x 41.3 cm (13 1/16 x 16 1/4 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 84.XM.171.34

LOS ANGELES.- Dialogue among Giants on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Center, presents the work of San Francisco-based photographer Carleton Watkins in the context of the birth and early evolution of photography in California. The more than 150 works in the exhibition come from private collections and institutions across the country as well as the Getty Museum’s own extensive holdings of more than 1,700 pictures by Watkins.

The exhibition presents Watkins’s work, as it has never before been shown, in the context of his most important contemporaries. Organized thematically, the exhibition includes mammoth plate photographs Watkins made in Yosemite at the height of his career, panoramas of San Francisco, and photographs he made along the Pacific Coast and in Southern California. The exhibition also investigates Watkins’s previously unknown early career as a daguerreotypist, finding the roots of his artistic vision in California’s Gold Rush era.

“Dialogue among Giants is a tour-de-force achievement for the Museum’s Department of Photographs,” explains Michael Brand, director of the J. Paul GettyMuseum. “The exhibition showcases both the depth of our extensive holdings of photographs and the great expertise of our staff. It represents the result of many years of research by Weston Naef, work that will be seen as a tremendous contribution to the field. The works on view will also provide a spectacular window into the pictorial history of California.”

Considered one of the most influential American photographers working before Alfred Stieglitz, Watkins (American, 1829–1916) was exceptionally productive. He made thousands of pictures in a career that spanned the half-century from about 1850, when he arrived in California, to the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed his San Francisco studio and all his glass negatives. During that time, he achieved international fame for his Yosemite photographs, which he created using the largest available camera, one designed to expose mammoth plate negatives. Applying a remarkably innovative visual sense, Watkins traveled the western United States, making historically significant photographs of its mountains, coastline, vast natural resources, and burgeoning cities. “His photographs were as perceptive as the words of a poet and they provide a unique personal vision of the birth and growth of California,” says Weston Naef, senior curator in the Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs.

Despite Watkins’s dominant role in establishing an outdoor photographic tradition in California, his first years in photography are obscure and the exact process by which his genius was nurtured remains mysterious. Not long after settling in California, Watkins found mining unsatisfying and took up photography full-time. He began making daguerreotypes of mining scenes as an independent “outdoor man” for established portrait studios, including those of his mentor, Robert Vance, his partners George Johnson and James M. Ford, as well as publisher George Fardon.

The exhibition examines Watkins’s beginnings as a daguerreotypist, before hemade his first mammoth plate prints. Watkins’s mammoth plates are paired with visuallyand thematically similar daguerreotypes—the majority by previously unknown photographers—which are now being attributed to Watkins. He made, possibly, hundreds of daguerreotypes and with that training became one of the 19th century’s most astute witnesses.

Dialogue among Giants also places Watkins in the context of the greatest mammoth plate photographers and publishers working in San Francisco in his time, including Thomas Houseworth, Eadweard Muybridge, and Charles L. Weed. These men carried on visual dialogues, often photographing side-by-side, most notably at the Vernaland Nevada Falls in Yosemite. Although debate continues, Watkins is now believed to have been the first person to photograph Yosemite, leading his peers to the best viewpoints from which to picture the valley and its environs.

The culture of 19th-century San Francisco encouraged visual exchanges; the many panoramic photographs of the city further demonstrate this. Watkins pioneered the photographic panorama, assembling multiple daguerreotypes into continuous views in the 1850s. By the 1860s and 1870s, Watkins was joined by his contemporaries atop the city’s Nob Hill, the vantage point from which five panoramas in the exhibition were made.

Although Watkins created his best-known photographs in Yosemite and San Francisco, he also did significant work up and down the Pacific Coast. The exhibition features pictures of the Columbia River in Oregon, sites along the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads, and of California’s once noble 18th-century missions. It also includes work he did in Southern California, including pictures of Kern County canals and San Gabriel Valley orchards.

Watkins’s life was filled with moments of great glory and huge disappointments. In the 1860s, his Yosemite photographs brought him celebrity as far away as Paris, but just a decade later he experienced a painful financial reversal. In the end, he was an impoverished and demoralized genius, living for a time with his wife and children in a railroad car. Ultimately, Watkins died a pauper in the Napa State Hospital in 1916 after a life that brought him into dialogue with the many giants of his era.

Dialogue among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California is curated by Weston Naef, senior curator in the Department of Photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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