By Mary Rose
There is little doubt that a photo delivers a powerful impact on people. Historical images continue to encourage insight and emotions in contemporary society as much as they likely did when they were new. In the next several blogs we’ll explore a montage of images and artists who left astounding footprints about their philosophy and perspectives upon contemporary audiences and heritage as we know it today. It’s interesting to consider what impression and interpretation photos of today will hold for viewers tomorrow.
Images – paintings, drawings and photos – enticed people westward across the North American continent simply by drawing their attention to the magnificent beauty and tremendous potential of vast open spaces, fresh waters, and abundant natural resources that beckoned to all those escaping an “ordinary” life. Many travelers westward bound tried their skills as entrepreneurs as they barely scraped by in a wilderness land. Most had some money when they left their eastern homes, but unless they reached thriving communities along the trail, paper or silver dollars held little value when basic commodities were in demand. Barter and trade were standard practices until the traveler finally settled near communities, and this was the same for talented portrait photographers who headed west. Portland, Oregon had several photographers in the latter half of the 19th century, including Joseph Buchtel who was selling his photography as early as 1853. He also worked on steamships to make ends meet.
Early travel guides such as Captain Randolph Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler (first published in 1859), sought to prepare the overland emigrant for the longest expedition of his/her life.
“The main object at which I have aimed in the following pages has been to explain and illustrate, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the best methods of performing the duties devolving upon the prairie traveler, so as to meet their contingencies under all circumstances, and thereby to endeavor to establish a more uniform system of marching and campaigning in the Indian Country.”[i]
Marcy’s traveler’s guide addressed the physical needs and challenges to be endured but as early as 1851, Robert Vance, a photographer from San Jose, California, exhibited a collection of 300 whole-plate daguerreotype California scenes in New York. By the end of that decade, other landscapes of the West were beginning to circulate in the east and Midwest.[ii]
A few people in the West learned to make photography a profitable art form. Born in 1829, Carleton E. Watkins was the youngest son of hoteliers in Oneonta, NY. From an early age, Watkins was frequently exposed to travelers passing through on their way to exciting new places and adventures. One of those guests was a young hardware salesman, Collis P. Huntington, the future principal and builder for the Central Pacific Railroad.
Huntington invited the youth Watkins to travel by ship with him to the Gold Rush in 1852 in Sacramento, California. There he employed Watkins to deliver supplies to mining operations until Sacramento’s devastating fire in November 1852.[iii] Watkins set out in search of a new career.
Watkins concentrated his early photography on spectacular views in Yosemite. Recognizing their commercial value, Watkins established copyright for his works and printed that information on his stereographs. By 1867, he was ready for a major undertaking that would boost his popularity. Commissioned by Oregon Steam & Navigation Company, he undertook a four month trip to Oregon and the Columbia River seeking magnificent views of the popular Oregon Territory. Watkins believed that the Northwest was “etched into the conscientiousness”[vii] of America by the early accounts of Lewis and Clark. As a boy growing up in New York, he was enthralled by the adventuresome spirit of the early tales of explorers, wagons trains, soldiers and Indians. He was certain that his photos of the mighty Columbia River would be in demand in New York still.
Three days after his ship landed in Portland, The Oregonian announced the arrival of a notable gentleman photographer well-known for his photos of California views. Watkins intended to “take views” wherever he found the scenery remarkable. He planned to include the city of Portland at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, as well as the “majestic flow of the Columbia, thence, oceanward, forests, plains, the dark blue range of the Cascades …”[viii]
Watkins made arrangements to exhibit his 1867 works for sale with W.T. Shanahan in his “Music and Art Gallery” on Morrison Street in downtown Portland.
Through the 1870’s, Watkins thrived on the commissions of publishers who used his photos as a source for engravings. Illustrated California Magazine was a good example. He documented mining estates and his photos served as evidence in courts of law.[ix] By 1863, Watkins was already selling stereoviews of Yosemite, the New Almaden mining operations, the Mendocino coast, and his always popular San Francisco cityscapes.[x]
Following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, Watkins published construction photos of the Central Pacific Railroad (as acquired from another photographer Alfred H. Hart’s collection) and continued making photo excursions throughout the West. He maintained a major studio in San Francisco. Watkins won international awards and acclaim for his photography but as a businessman he failed in the financial crisis of 1875. He lost his studio and negatives to creditors who began marketing his stereoviews under the “I.W. Taber” label.[xi]
Not to be bested, Watkins began a “Watkins New Series” and revisited the locations he featured in the 1860’s, including the Columbia River and the Pacific Northwest. At age 50, he married Frances Sneade, feeling confident that his future was bright. He continued his productivity well into the 1890’s.
Unfortunately, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed Watkins’s studio and all negatives. Watkins died 10 years later at age 87.
Numerous Watkins prints still exist today in private and institutional collections worldwide. His photos reflect remarkable talent and a splendid vision of the West’s landscape in the 19th century.