Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: gra00091

Carleton Watkins Mammoth Albumen Photographs of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove

Scope and content

The collection is made up of twenty two mammoth plate albumen photographs consisting of tree portraits and landscape views in Yosemite and Mariposa Valley, California. They were taken during Carleton Watkins’s time spent on the California State Geological Survey, and span the years 1861-1885.

Watkins assigned numbers to almost all of his negatives, most likely for inventory in his studio, which Isaiah Taber took over in 1875. Watkins’s work up until about 1874 is known as the “Old Series,” while his work from 1875 on is part of his “New Series.” These negative numbers, also known as Watkins numbers, along with their titles, were published by Isaiah Taber around 1883.

In Weston Naef’s 2011 "Carleton Watkins, The Complete Mammoth Photographs," every known photograph is assigned a catalog number organized by region.

Dates

  • 1861-1885

Creator

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research by appointment. Researchers must register and provide one form of valid photo identification. Please contact botref@oeb.harvard.edu for additional information.

Extent

2 linear feet (6 oversize flat boxes)

Biographical note

Born in Oneonta, New York, on November 11, 1829, Carleton Eugene Watkins was a photographer of the American West, best known for his photographs of Yosemite, San Francisco, the Pacific Coast, Arizona, and Nevada.

Watkins initially headed west in 1851 after hearing of the California Gold Rush and eventually ended up in San Francisco. In 1854, while working at George Murray’s bookshop, he became acquainted with Robert H. Vance, a gallery owner looking for a temporary replacement photographer. Watkins, with no prior photography experience, took the job and quickly caught on to the medium.

In 1860, Watkins was commissioned to photograph the Mariposa mining estate of Colonel John C. Fremont, to procure future business ventures. An important stepping stone in Watkins's career, the photographs of the 44,000-acre estate, are his largest surviving body of work before 1861. Referring to himself as a "photographist," by 1861 Watkins had become known for his field and landscape photography. In July of that year, Watkins first traveled to Yosemite. It would also be the first time he traveled to the park with his custom-made mammoth plate camera, which held 18 x 22 inch glass plate negatives. During this trip, he would produce thirty mammoth and one hundred stereoscopic negatives. It was these photographs that led President Lincoln to sign the 1864 bill to preserve Yosemite. In 1865, Mount Watkins in Yosemite would be named in his honor.

Watkins became the official photographer for the California State Geological Survey, and just two years later, in 1867, opened his own Yosemite Art Gallery in San Francisco. During this time, Watkins began to take photographs of trees and other botanical specimens. Harvard botanist Asa Gray was one of the experts to identify plants collected as part of the California State Geological Survey.

Watkins lost his studio and his collections of the "Old Series" in 1875 to Isaiah West Taber due to financial trouble. Taber printed Watkins's negatives under his own name. This prompted Watkins to start his "New Series of Pacific Coast Views'' in an attempt to recreate his past work and discover new sites. He continued to photograph until the early 1890s but had to stop due to his rapidly diminishing eyesight and arthritis. Also burdened by financial troubles, Watkins would live his final years in poverty and even lived in an abandoned railcar with his family for 18 months. In 1906, he lost many of his photographs, negatives, and stereo works when his studio burned after a massive earthquake. In 1910 he was committed to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane where he would remain until his death on June 23, 1916. He is buried on the hospital grounds in an unmarked grave.

Friedel MK. 2007. “Guide to the Carleton E. Watkins Photographs 1861-1885.” Northwest Digital Archives. http://nwda-db.wsulibs.wsu.edu/findaid/ark:/80444/xv99202. Accessed Jan 2022.

Hathaway B. July 2008. “About Carleton Watkins.” Smithsonian Magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/carleton-watkins.html. Accessed Jan 2022.

Naef W. 2011. Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs. Los Angeles (CA): J. Paul Getty Museum.

National Gallery of Art. n.d. “Carlton Watkins, the Art of Perception.” Retrieved from http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/watkinsbro.shtm. Accessed Jan 2022.

Nickel DR. 1999. Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception. San Francisco: H.N. Abrams

Palmquist PE. 1983. Carleton E. Watkins, Photographer of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Historical note

Mammoth plate photographs are part of a wet-collodion process, developed out of the ambrotype, that produces large glass plate negatives, usually 18 x 22 inches but varying from 15 x 18 inches to 22 x 25 inches depending on the camera size. Cameras had to be custom made and often had a wide-angle lens. This process began the idea of oversized photographs before the development of enlargers.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. n.d. Mammoth Plate Photographs of the North American West. Retrieved from https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/mammoth-plate-photographs-north-american-west Accessed Jan 2022.

Provenance

The collection was gifted to the Harvard University Herbarium by Asa Gray. It is likely William Henry Brewer, botanist on the California State Geological Survey, purchased or facilitated the gift of these photographs to Gray, for his work identifying plants collected as part of the survey.

Related materials

Other related material at the Botany Libraries, Harvard University Herbaria: Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove photographs by C. E. Watkins, circa 1875. arn00026. Archives of the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge), Harvard University.

Witney JD, Carleton E. Watkins, and Geological Survey of California. 1868. The Yosemite Book : a Description of the Yosemite Valley and the Adjacent Region of the Sierra Nevada and of the Big Trees of California. New York: J. Bien. Botany Gray Herbarium (Cambridge), Harvard University, Inscribed "To Mr. Asa Gray with the author's compliments."

Conservation note

In 1999 the 22 prints in the Watkins Archives were examined and treated by Boston Art Conservation.

The Watkins photographs were each placed in a custom cut mat constructed of 4-ply mat board. Corner pockets to hold the photograph in place were designed using a heavy weight, high alpha cellulose paper. The matted photographs were covered with a thin, translucent interleaving paper and placed in custom designed boxes.

Number note

Watkins assigned numbers to almost all of his negatives, most likely for inventory in his studio, which Isaiah Taber took over in 1875. Watkins’s work up until about 1874 is known as the “Old Series,” while his work from 1875 on is part of his “New Series.” These negative numbers, also known as Watkins numbers, along with their titles, were published by Isaiah Taber around 1883.

In Weston Naef’s 2011 Carleton Watkins, The Complete Mammoth Photographs, every known photograph is assigned a catalog number organized by region.

Variant title

Collection formerly referred to as: Mammoth Albumen Photographs of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove.

Processing Information

Finding aid updated by Ashley Tooke, 2022 Febraury.

Title
Watkins, Carleton E., 1829-1916. Carleton Watkins Mammoth Albumen Photographs of Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, 1861-1885: A Guide.
Status
completed
Author
Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
Description rules
dacs
Language of description
eng
EAD ID
gra00091

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Gray Herbarium Library specializes in the identification and classification of New World plants with emphasis on North American plants. The Archives of the Gray Herbarium houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Gray Herbarium.

Contact:
Harvard University Herbaria
22 Divinity Ave
Cambridge MA 02138 USA
(617) 495-2366