Stream and trees with Half Dome in background, Yosemite Valley, Calif.
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People had lived in the Yosemite Valley for a few thousand years before the area experienced its first "tourists": entrepreneur James Mason Hutchings and artist Thomas Ayres. The two created a publicity campaign proclaiming Yosemite to be a paradise. As the valley became the new travel destination, it also brought in many artists, including Carleton Watkins.
Watkins worked with a mammoth-plate camera and 18"x22" glass plates, using the wet-collodion technique to create rich, detailed images. His equipment load came out to around two thousand pounds, all resting on the backs of a dozen mules. It is truly a miracle these images survived the trip! His photographs of Yosemite were the first seen back East. The power of these majestic landscapes were a major influence on President Lincoln, who signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, placing the Yosemite Valley under federal protection (and ultimately paving the way for the National Parks Service).
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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