Exhibition Featuring Exquisite Photographs of Yosemite in the 1860s by Carleton Watkins on View at Met Museum Beginning Nov. 3

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Exhibition Dates:  November 3, 2014–February 1, 2015
Exhibition Location:  The Howard Gilman Gallery, Gallery 852

Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) was the consummate photographer of the American West. Born in Oneonta, New York, he moved to California in 1849, taught himself the new medium of photography, and established his reputation in 1861 with an astonishing series of views of Yosemite Valley. The exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carleton Watkins: Yosemite, includes a suite of photographs made by Watkins during his first encounter with the sublime topography of Yosemite in 1861 as well as a larger group of studies from his later visits to the valley in 1865 and 1866 while working for the California State Geological Survey. The 36 photographs in the exhibition are drawn primarily from Photographs of the Yosemite Valley, a unique album in the Special Collections Library at Stanford University.

The exhibition is made possible by Jennifer S. and Philip F. Maritz and an anonymous donor.

Watkins was a virtuoso practitioner of the difficult wet-collodion process, and the remarkable clarity of his “mammoth” prints (18 x 22 inches) was unmatched in his day. He rendered in exquisite detail the vastness and grandeur of Yosemite’s glacial valleys, dramatic waterfalls, massive rock faces, and majestic trees. Among the highlights of the exhibition is the photograph Tasayac, the Half Dome. One of the valley’s most dominant geological features, Half Dome rises 8,842 feet above sea level, more than 4,800 feet above the valley floor.

Watkins traveled through extremely steep and hazardous terrain to produce this series of views of Yosemite Valley, often wrangling a dozen mules carrying roughly 2,000 pounds of equipment, including his oversize camera, large glass plates, and flammable chemicals. It was partly due to the artistry and rugged beauty of these photographs that President Lincoln signed a bill on June 30, 1864, declaring the valley inviolate and initiating the blueprint for the nation’s National Park System. In the middle of the brutal Civil War Lincoln saw the preservation of a small but extraordinary piece of America’s wilderness as a progressive goal to share with the republic.

Carleton Watkins: Yosemite is organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum.

Additional information about the exhibition is available on the Museum’s website.

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October 31, 2014

Image caption: Carleton E. Watkins, Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite, 1865–66. Albumen silver print. Lent by Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

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