By Jan Siegel
Carleton Watkins, born in New York, came to California in 1851 seeking his fortune in gold. He was not successful and eventually went to San Francisco and worked as a store clerk.
When a nearby photography studio lost its photographer, the owner asked Watkins to fill in until a real photographer could be hired. Watkins learned camera techniques quickly and soon became an actual photographer.
By 1858, Watkins was experimenting with ways to improve glass-plate negatives including stereographs. Outdoor landscapes became Watkins’ favorite work, and, in July of 1861, he went to Yosemite to photograph the area.
It took a dozen mules to carry his huge plate camera, which used 18-by-22-inch glass plate negatives, a stereoscopic camera, tripods, glass plates, chemicals, a tent for a darkroom and other supplies. While the trails into the valley were spectacular, it was also a dangerous, treacherous trip.
Watkins returned from Yosemite with 30 huge plates and 100 stereoscopic negatives. Reviews of his work declared they “were of superb technical and artistic quality” and had “clearness, strength and softness of tone.”
There was no doubt that Watkins was the most artistic American landscape photographer in the 19th century. In 1862, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the preeminent photography critic of the day, praised Watkins and wrote that he had achieved “a perfection of art which compares with the finest European work.”
(Holmes’ son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.)
The photographs of Yosemite made their way to the U.S. Congress and President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was so impressed with the images that in 1864 he urged Congress to pass legislation preserving the Yosemite Valley, keeping it away from developers.
Lincoln signed the legislation, which became the impetus for the National Park Service in 1916. In 1865, Mount Watkins in Yosemite was named after Carleton Watkins.
In the 1875 financial crisis, Watkins declared bankruptcy and lost his San Francisco studio with his negatives. He then traveled all over the West.
In 1876, he came to San Juan Capistrano and photographed the Mission. The most iconic photographer of the 19th century chose Mission San Juan Capistrano as one of his images. Photos of the Mission are in Father Engelhardt’s book on The Jewel of the Missions on page 207.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.
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