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Watkins image

Carleton Watkins was one of the first to photograph the western landscape, working with large plate glass negatives, making large albumen prints for sale to tourists.

I have seen many Watkins photographs in galleries and museums over the years, and for years was fascinated by the colors achieved in the prints—a rich maroon in the shadows, a glowing gold in the highlights—together making an image that seems to offer more information than a straight silver print.  For about a decade, I used “split toning” to try to replicate the color pallet of the old images—with some limited success.

I stumbled across a “cabinet card” sized Watkins for sale on e-bay recently—I have to admit that I never really looked for Watkins prints—the ones I’ve seen in galleries have been priced well beyond my collecting budget—but this one was priced in range, so I bid a modest increment over the minimum, and, to my surprise, won the auction.

The image apparently was made in the field with camera larger than the print I purchased—it is included as Plate 25 in “Carleton Watkins:  the art of perception”, published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1999—a publication notable for how well the printing reproduces the difficult colors of the old albumen prints (one photographer once noted that another, a less successful attempt “looked like someone pissed on the prints”).  The information indicates a 15.5 x 20.625 inch print size—much larger than the print I purchased—which is only 4×6 inches—and cropped slightly differently.  I assume that the image was made in the field with a large plate camera, and a smaller copy negative was made for the smaller print size, which was then used to make the albumen print (a contact printing process).

Watkins was photographing in Yosemite in the 1860’s, more than half a century before Ansel Adams made his first exposure.  Although the materials available for Watkins to work with were crude by modern standards, the images he made still resonate—ethereal light, mythical mountains, and filled with stillness.

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