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Scenery, industry, surface, and scale

Photographer Wayne Barrar and poet Kerry Hines respond to the exhibition of historic landscape photographs by Carleton Watkins


<P data-associrn="1512090"></P> <P><EM>The main stone is granite, carved out by glaciers. The highly polished surfaces - which really are astonishing, tonally - glisten, glitter, glow - a working landscape of light.</EM> </P> <P>When Watkins photographed the Yosemite Valley in 1861, it had been ‘discovered’ for over a decade, but was still in the very initial stages of development as a scenic site. His extensive photographs from that trip helped to move things along. By 1865 - the year of his second major trip to the area - President Lincoln had signed the Yosemite Grant which protected its scenery and sequoias, influenced in part by Watkins’ images; one of the peaks in the area had been named in his honour; visitor infrastructure had begun to develop.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P>* </P> <P data-associrn="303395"></P> <P><EM>Mountains rise from mid-air. Trees at left and right lean away from the chasm as if they might otherwise be drawn to topple head first into it. The bottomless valley, dropping away.</EM> </P> <P>Watkins had anticipated a positive response to his Yosemite views. In preparation for his 1861 trip, he had commissioned a camera that would take extra-large negatives measuring 18 x 22 inches.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> (Enlargement of negatives was uncommon at this time; extra-large negatives were required in order to make extra-large prints.) The scale of his ‘mammoth prints’ not only gave him a point of distinction, they were a match for the grand scale of the landscapes he was photographing. They offered a sense of immersion in the view and the possibility of seeing detail that might otherwise be missed. </P> <P>* </P> <P data-associrn="303402"></P> <P><EM>Dancing with the stars at our feet</EM> </P> <P>The view from Glacier Point confounds our sense of scale in a different way from <EM>The first view of the valley</EM>. You can see a shadowy floor, but how far down is it? How big are those trees? Vertiginous though it is, our viewpoint isn’t the highest point here. And the valley doesn’t end, but hazes into the distance, out of sight. </P> <P>The liquid patch among the trees must be Mirror Lake, or perhaps the creek that feeds it. Much reduced now that it is being left to its own devices, the lake was for some decades actively maintained as a scenic attraction, its still, clear water making it a favoured spot for viewing reflections. In the 1870s, a toll road was built to make transport to the lake easier. A lake house offered refreshments and boating, and dances were held on a platform over the water.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>In his later trips, Watkins must have had to work harder to keep people out of the picture. </P> <P>* </P> <P><EM>Stars hosed out of this world<BR>sediment the lake</EM></P> <P>Water recurs through Watkins’ photographs in this exhibition. Climbing seems to be another theme - implied within the viewpoints from which some of the photographs have been taken, and in their inclusion of climbing-related paraphernalia: the ladder propped against the fallen <EM>Father of the Forest, Calaveras Grove</EM> (1878-81); the lattice high on the distant tree in <EM>Mother of the Forest, Calaveras Grove</EM> (1878-81), just above the line of removed bark; the ladder to the top of the dam structure, at the left in <EM>Bowman Dam, Nevada County, California</EM> (about 1871). A track runs through the soft ground in <EM>Father of the Forest</EM>; soft ground drifts across the tracks in <EM>Mount Hood and the Dalles, Columbia River, Oregon</EM> (1867).</P> <P>There is also the pleasure of unexpected detail, such as the grain in the timber used to make Bowman Dam, the contrast between the wood and its stony surrounds, and the realisation that its placid lake is beginning to kill the trees it has marooned. The log resting as if after a roller-coaster trip in <EM>Hydraulic mining, The Flume, Nevada County California</EM> (1871); the invisible disappearance of the flume water behind it. The stark poles and the sharp angles they form with their shadows in The Dalles, and the painterly white of Mount Hood in the distance. And the unexpected ways in which the pine needles rhyme with the texture of the bark in <EM>Cones from Sequoia Gigantea, Calaveras Grove, Yosemite</EM> (about 1861-81), and one of the cones is blurred - one cone only, suggesting it must have slipped slightly during the exposure - and bark and needles glitter, glisten, as if gilded or granite.</P> <P>*</P> <P data-associrn="303417"></P> <P><STRONG>The Dalles</STRONG></P> <P>We live by rocks, under<BR>the threat of rocks.</P> <P>Occasional trains grind<BR>through the sand.</P> <P>No one stops at the house. <BR>Land and water drift on by.</P> <P>The mountain comes and goes.<BR>It is painted and re-painted</P> <P>white like the house, this<BR>far-fetched peak on the plain.</P> <P>*&nbsp;</P> <P data-associrn="303425"></P> <P>Watkins used the cumbersome wet collodion process which required his mammoth glass plates to be coated and developed ‘in the field’, often in a steamy hot darkroom tent. He would then print these plates back in his San Francisco studio using the albumen process. This involved hand-floating the albumen paper on silver nitrate, with subsequent toning in gold chloride baths. The resultant tonality and detail of these mammoth prints is spectacular even after more than a century of aging. </P> <P>Watkins’ work is so fantastic that it must have been hard to follow immediately in his footsteps. That said, plenty did. The appetite for images of Yosemite resulted in other photographers taking an interest in the area, mainly chugging out the ordinary imagery able to satisfy a tourist market. In addition to competition from them, Watkins had to deal with problems arising from his own business practices. Having neglected to register his copyright, in line with the requirements of the time, he found that another company had made unauthorised copies of his photographs and issued them as its own. He also lost most of his negatives (along with his Yosemite Art Gallery in San Francisco) to another photographer, following financial difficulties in the mid-1870s. He subsequently revisited many sites, including Yosemite, to create a ‘New Series’ of images that would restock his inventory.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP></P> <P>*</P> <P data-associrn="192958"></P> <P>Joel Snyder’s classic essay ‘Territorial Photography’ offers in-depth consideration of a range of issues related to the photography of the American West.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> In this essay, Watkins’ photographic approach and output are contrasted with those of the other truly great 19th-century photographer of the American landscape, Timothy O’Sullivan. </P> <P>A key point that Snyder makes relates to his idea around ‘invitation’. Watkins’ photographs, in his view, are ‘invitational’. They allow the viewer to enter the space with a sense of ease and comfort. We feel secure in the representation of the landscape and understand its potential for inhabitation, tourism, or even speculation. By contrast, the images made by O’Sullivan - predominantly as part of official survey commissions - are uneasy and often foreboding affairs. They are not immediately places to inhabit; they are places to ‘study’. Snyder very acutely refers to this work as ‘contrainvitational’ - landscapes with a kind of ‘enter at your own risk’ sign attached. </P> <P>Clearly Watkins’ choice of the great Yosemite Valley as the locational core of his photography is telling. The valley is loaded with all the triggers of a contemplative place. Watkins was able to understand and articulate the beauty, form, and order of this dramatic landscape. As one of the first to photograph there, he was able to set the standard for the representation of the geography. While struggling with the physical realities and economics of using his large and demanding wet collodion camera, he did, however, always record the rock faces, waterfalls and valleys of the region in the best of conditions. Anyone visiting Yosemite now (or indeed anyone accessing views online from the park’s webcams) knows that the valley is covered with heavy snow and cloud for much of the year. Watkins avoided such realities, presenting his favoured sites in perfect dramatic conditions. Later photographers of the valley - most notably George Fiske in the 1880s and 1890s, and Ansel Adams in the 20th century - were able to extend beyond this trope by living there year-round, or at least visiting in winter. </P> <P>*</P> <P data-associrn="303414"></P> <P>If Watkins’ photographs of Yosemite are invitational, what about his photographs of mining sites, such as the image of Malakoff Diggins? Here we see a humanised and altered landscape. Huge water jets spray the landscape in the way we water our suburban gardens. The landscape is disrupted, but strangely still organised and balanced. But the real invitational element here is the tumbling pseudo waterfall in the centre of the field of view. While probably totally artificial (and possibly even polluted), this feature reminds us of the natural Bridal Veil Falls of Yosemite. In this image, Watkins presents a revised Garden of Eden where industry and nature collude to generate a productive, working landscape. </P> <P>Such photographs, visualising the interaction between nature and culture, informed scores of photographers around a century later. Central to this was the influential exhibition <EM>New Topographics: Photographs of a man-altered landscape</EM>, which challenged and articulated a new approach to photographically recording the land.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> Photography at this point was increasingly grounded in awareness of the potential cultural roles of art’s representations and with a growing environmental reality and awareness. </P> <P>*</P> <P data-associrn="391857"></P> <P>When Milford’s Sutherland Falls were surveyed in 1888, Yosemite Falls were a reference point in discussion of their size and potential as a tourist attraction.<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> New Zealand photographer Frank Coxhead, who had photographed both, thought that the Sutherland Falls were ‘equally as grand’, but that New Zealand had a way to go to match Yosemite in facilitating access to the site and clearing away bush that got in the way of the view.<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>The ‘improvement’ of sites that were being promoted for their untouched beauty may seem unusual, but it wasn’t. Some photographers, Coxhead included, happily removed vegetation that stood in the way of the perfect vista.<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP> And though both Yosemite and the Milford/Te Anau area were presented as though they were in their natural state, indigenous people had moved through and lived in these environments for centuries. The natural-looking meadows of Yosemite were a result of recurrent burn-offs by the Ahwahneechee.<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>Given the historical parallels between the American West and New Zealand in the period in which Watkins operated, it is interesting to compare photographic productivity in the two regions. This is even more tempting given that ten Watkins prints are currently being shown alongside an exhibition of New Zealand photographs from Te Papa’s collection.</P> <P data-associrn="1511273"></P><P data-associrn="1511274"></P> <P>Images from the great Southern Lakes expeditions by photographers such as Alfred Burton exhibit the ‘invitational’ characteristics of Watkins’ Yosemite work, and similarly helped open the region to tourism on a grand scale. Both locations supported many photographic businesses providing views for dissemination. In the New Zealand instance, most work falls materially short of the grandeur of Watkins’ massive prints, though there are exceptions. Burton Brothers supplemented their standard album-scale, whole-plate photographs with a small number of very large 14 x 18 inch plates. A huge heavy album entitled <EM>Sounds Excursion 1902</EM>, produced by Muir and Moodie and incorporating some of the Burton Brothers’ earlier work, contains 36 prints, each 13½ x 17½ inches, of classic viewpoints from Manapouri, ‘the Sounds’, and surrounding landscapes. </P> <P>Photographers such as James Ring (West Coast) and William Hart (Queenstown) also journeyed throughout their regions building up an inventory of views of subject matter surprisingly similar to Watkins’, including extensive documentation of the flumes and tailings of mining. While intimate in scale, these images nonetheless remind us that New Zealand’s colonial period photography, often the equal to that of practitioners from more ‘known’ regions, deserves greater attention. </P> <P>&nbsp;</P> <P><STRONG>Kerry Hines</STRONG> is a poet, writer, and researcher with an interest in photographic histories. Her recent book <EM>Young Country</EM> (Auckland University Press, 2014) presents poems written to accompany images by 19th-century photographer William Williams, and an essay featuring work by Christchurch photographer Adam Maclay appears in <EM>The Lives of Colonial Objects</EM> (Otago University Press, 2015).</P> <P><STRONG>Wayne Barrar</STRONG> is a photographer and Associate Professor at the School of Art, Massey University Wellington. His work, which sometimes utilises 19th-century processes and materials, has been widely exhibited and published.</P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></P> <OL> <LI>Peter E Palmquist, ‘Chronology’, in Douglas R Nickel, <EM>Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception</EM> (New York: Harry N Abrams Inc., 1999), pp. 216-17.</LI> <LI>Ibid, p. 216.</LI> <LI>Linda W Greene, <EM>Yosemite: The Park and its Resources</EM>, Vol.1 ([Denver, Colorado?:] US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1987), pp. 226-27.</LI> <LI>Palmquist, pp. 217-18.</LI> <LI>Joel Snyder, ‘Territorial Photography’, in <EM>Landscape and Power</EM>, ed. WJT Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 175-201.</LI> <LI><EM>New Topographics: Photographs of a man-altered landscape</EM>, exhibition curated by William Jenkins at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, 1975.</LI> <LI>See for example: Item on the survey under ‘Summary for Europe: Political and General’, <EM>Otago Daily Times</EM>, 31 October 1888, p. 5; Editorial, <EM>The Press</EM>, 31 January 1889, p. 4.</LI> <LI>‘Artists in Milford Sound’, <EM>Otago Daily Times</EM>, 8 February 1889, p. 3.</LI> <LI>See for example: Alfred Burton, <EM>Wintering on Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri: A Photographer’s Diary</EM> ([Dunedin: <EM>Otago Daily Times</EM>, 1889]), p. 4; ‘Artists in Milford Sound’,<EM> Otago Daily Times</EM>, 8 February 1889, p. 3; ‘An American Eden? The Yosemite Valley, 1872’, <A href="http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/eadweard-muybridge/exhibition-guide/yosemite">www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/eadweard-muybridge/exhibition-guide/yosemite</A>, accessed 13 October 2015.</LI> <LI>Greene, p. 273.</LI></OL> <P>&nbsp;</FONT size=2></P> <P>&nbsp;</P>
Carleton Watkins, &lt;EM&gt; Mirror Lake, Yosemite&lt;/EM&gt;, &lt;EM&gt;c&lt;/EM&gt;. 1865, albumen print, 521 x 399 mm. Library of Congress.

Carleton Watkins, Mirror Lake, Yosemite, c. 1865, albumen print, 521 x 399 mm. Library of Congress.

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Carleton E. Watkins, The first view of the valley, Yosemite, from the Mariposa Trail, circa 1865, albumen silver print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Carleton E. Watkins, The Yosemite Falls. From the album: Views of New Zealand Scenery/Views of England, N. America, Hawaii and N.Z., circa 1865, black and white photograph, albumen silver print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Carleton E. Watkins, The Half Dome from Glacier Point, Yosemite, 1865-66, black and white photograph, albumen print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Carleton E. Watkins, Malakoff Diggins, Nevada County, California, circa 1871, black and white photograph, albumen print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Carleton E. Watkins, Father of the Forest, Calaveras Grove, 1878-1881, black and white photograph, albumen print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Carleton E. Watkins, Bowman Dam, Nevada County, California, circa 1871, black and white photograph, albumen print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Carleton E. Watkins, Mount Hood and the Dalles, Columbia River, Oregon, 1867, black and white photograph, albumen print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Burton Brothers, &lt;EM&gt;Milford Sound&lt;/EM&gt;, &lt;EM&gt;c&lt;/EM&gt;.1880, albumen print, 13&#189;  x 17 &#189;  inches. Barrar-Hines Collection.

Burton Brothers, Milford Sound, c.1880, albumen print, 13½ x 17 ½ inches. Barrar-Hines Collection.

William Hart, &lt;EM&gt;Hydraulic gold mining, St Bathans, Otago NZ&lt;/EM&gt;, &lt;EM&gt;c&lt;/EM&gt;.1880, albumen print, 6 x 8 inches. Barrar-Hines Collection.

William Hart, Hydraulic gold mining, St Bathans, Otago NZ, c.1880, albumen print, 6 x 8 inches. Barrar-Hines Collection.