Carleton Watkins became nationally renowned for the spectacular series of mammoth-plate photographs he made of Yosemite Valley in 1861. On that trip, and on his seven subsequent visits to the valley, Watkins brought with him an immense, custom-made camera that was capable of exposing 18-by-22-inch glass plates. Though unwieldy, particularly because they had to be sensitized and processed in the field, these mammoth-plate negatives allowed Watkins to capture the vastness and grandeur of Yosemite in exceptional detail.

In the 19th century, Yosemite was often seen as a foil for San Francisco, an Edenic alternative to the dirty and congested city. Watkins's majestic pictures helped convince Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Bill in 1864, making the valley the first area set aside by the government for protection from development.


  • Title: Pohono, Bridal Veil, 900 Feet, Yosemite
  • Creator: Carleton E. Watkins
  • Date Created: 1861
  • Physical Dimensions: w527.05 x h403.1 in (image)
  • Type: photograph
  • External Link: SFMOMA
  • Medium: Albumen print
  • Subject: Yosemite National Park, United States
  • Place Part Of: United States
  • More Info: Watch: Peaks and perils: The life of Carleton Watkins, More About This Artist - SFMOMA
  • Credit Line: Purchase through a gift of Gary Sokol and Christine Murray, and the Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Barbara and Gerson Bakar, Doris and Donald G. Fisher, Evelyn D. Haas, Mimi and Peter Haas, and Elaine McKeon
  • About the Artist: Carleton E. Watkins came to California around 1851 from the small New York town of Oneonta, one of a hundred thousand hopeful young men migrating west that year in search of Gold Rush fortune. In the boomtown of San Francisco, he fell into photography by chance when asked by a local daguerreotypist to stand in for a missing employee. A natural adept, he soon established his own business fabricating outdoor photographs for land-dispute cases and mining interests. After his first photographic expedition to Yosemite in the summer of 1861, Watkins's name was made, and for the nearly half a century that followed he defied the vicissitudes of fortune and commerce to create what are surely the finest American landscape photographs of the 19th century. In wide-ranging travels across the length and breadth of the frontier West, Watkins energetically balanced a practical need to characterize the land before him with his craftsman's pride in a picture plumbed and mitred to perfection.

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