That young man who looked west with a glint in his eye: Was he dreaming of Eden or Mammon? For most artists of the nineteenth century, the West represented a place of grandeur and intoxicating purity; for many other people, however, it meant the promise of a big paycheck. In the American imagination, these two outlooks have often clashed melodramatically – the splendor of nature and the riches of man, the frontier and the town, innocence and guile. During the twentieth century, retaining a visionary view of the West proved more and more difficult in the face of sprawl and development; for many serious artists, the subject became “paradise lost.” Those who still yearned for a transcendental perspective – such as Georgia O’Keeffe or Ansel Adams – developed increasingly eccentric or baroque methods, juicing up their art in order to keep the visionary West alive.
The photography of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) does not suffer from all that. It depicts a West that is developing but still indivisible. In his images of California in the 1860s, the hand of man and the hand of nature work together amicably. There is no angry clash of first principles, no air of picturesque exaggeration or tendentious argument. Dreams do not divide. Everything remains possible. The West, in short, is still young. Some of the photographer’s contemporaries also maintained a hopeful view of the relationship of man and nature – depicting, for example, the perfect little cottage on the edge of the woods – but they appear sentimental when compared with Watkins. Perhaps because he was a photographer who created documents as well as dreams, Watkins’s work invariably appears practical and no-nonsense. Which only makes the sublime glint in his eye more powerful.
Organized by Douglas R. Nickel of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Maria Morris Hambourg of the Metropolitan Museum, Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception, which recently opened at the Met, includes about 85 large photographs – most in excellent condition – surveying the various subjects Watkins addressed. (It also contains examples and computer simulations of his so-called stereographs, in which two photographs are mounted together to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth when viewed through a binocular device.) Born in Oneonta, New York, Watkins followed the Gold Rush to San Francisco, arriving in the early 1850s. He soon realized that the new medium of photography – then hardly twenty years old – could convey the majesty of the West to Easterners eager for images of the region. A viewer in New York would not necessarily believe in the majestic landscapes in a painting. But who could deny the facts in a photograph?
In the East, Watkins’s work created a sensation. Intellectuals, scientists, and entrepreneurs became fascinated by his images. It was his rendering of the wonders of Yosemite that eventually led Abraham Lincoln to protect the land from development. Watkins had no head for business, but he was supported by powerful patrons in the West who commissioned photographs from him. One friend even gave him a free pass on the railroad (he could bring along his equipment and pack animals as well). Sometimes his customers demanded beautiful images of untouched wilderness, as in the celebrated series of Yosemite. At other times, they hired him to depict a mine or a sawmill. Whatever the particular demands of the market, however, Watkins crafted images in the 1860s that also embodied much greater themes.
Like many of the great novelists of the nineteenth century, Watkins seems to create an entire, full-blown world. He is capacious rather than personal. The amplitude of his work is both physical and social. He had a large camera built, and made what for the period were very big photographs, able to depict great swaths of space. But these large negatives also permitted him to devote attention to small pristine details, so that a viewer is always equally aware of great and small. The spaces are not inhuman. Watkins often establishes the scale of Western immensities by including small standing figures and habitations. But you would not say that these human details are “dwarfed” or made insignificant. Everything simply has its rightful place. His photographs also suggest movement, despite his cumbersome equipment and careful compositions. Whereas most nineteenth-century photographs appear static, Watkins conveys a world that seems busy becoming. Viewers see the split wood and the chugging train and the growing towns. No attempt is made to conceal the mess around raw human settlements. The sense of movement is not merely literal: The lines and shapes also have a powerful visual rhythm.
The great appeal of Watkins’s art is that nothing – in man or nature – finally appears aimless. He grew up among carpenters, and, as Hambourg suggests, his best photographs are carefully built; the lines seem cleanly planed, the shapes neatly joined, every edge considered. This infuses his art with something greater than “formal” or “compositional” order; his visual control suggests that a hidden hand, crafting a grand design, is at work in the American West. This is no less true of his scenes of untrampled nature than it is of his depictions of San Francisco or a mining camp. The endless range of mountains around Yosemite does not seem to sprawl outward; it gathers around. A singular rock face etches a message – which cannot be put in words – against the sky. In Eagle Creek, Columbia River, the different geometries of man and nature continually make rhymes with one another. The railway trestle reflects the curve of the river. The vertical clapboard of one house speaks to the vertical trees, while the horizontal clapboard of another reflects the outward spread of the earth. Three upward-waving trees make a match with three men.
Who is crafting this grand design for the West? Certainly not “God” or “Manifest Destiny.” Watkins is too mysterious for that. In some of his images, there is a road. You can’t tell where the road is going; any particular destination would weaken the strange air of anticipation that surrounds his photographs. But we know the direction that the region would take. From the vantage point of today’s diminished West, which looks back in longing rather than ahead in anticipation, Watkins represents a lost beginning.