Cathedral Rocks, with lake and trees in foreground, Yosemite Valley, Calif.
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Carleton Watkins took this photograph in 1861 of the Cathedral Rocks in Yosemite. Images like this played an integral role in preserving the Yosemite we know and love. This image and its counterparts were some of the first glimpses Easterners ever had of Yosemite National Park, and Watkins' ability to capture the park's majestic quality prompted President Lincoln to set aside the land for federal protection in 1864.
Cathedral Rocks is particularly inspiring; it’s hard not to stare in awe at the monolithic presence of the rocks emerging from the tree line, which, while ancient, also recalls the familiarity of a modern skyscraper. Though the photo is black and white, Carleton achieves masterful contrasts between foreground, middle ground and background, highlighting his impressive expertise in capturing depth. It’s curious, then, that this image takes on a collage-like quality. Despite being a completely natural setting, there’s a measure of artifice which is enticing and beguiling.
Carleton Watkins | See All Editions
Watkins grew up in upstate New York, but moved to San Francisco with dreams of striking gold. When that venture failed, he worked briefly in delivery and as a bookstore clerk. The bookstore was close to the studio of daguerreotypist Robert Vance, who taught Watkins the basics of photography. With this new skill, Watkins traveled to the Yosemite Valley and made both mammoth-plate images and stereoscopic images. These were some of the first photographs of Yosemite ever seen in the East, eventually capturing the attention of the capitol. President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, setting aside the land for federal protection.
Watkins continued to shoot in Yosemite for the California Geological Survey, later opening his own gallery just for his award-winning Yosemite images. Though he suffered a series of unfortunate events that led to the loss of his sight and many of his negatives, his images continue to live on.
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