EDITORIAL FEATURE

This Haunting Photo of a Solar Eclipse Was Taken in 1889

Don't worry, you can look directly at Carleton Watkins' 128-year-old eclipse photograph 

Some of the best photos ever taken have been one-shot wonders. Whether it's capturing a kiss on VJ day, or a photobomb by a friendly stingray, these shots are timed to the second: the perfect meeting of luck and preparation.

That was the case on January 1, 1889, when American photographer Carleton Watkins walked to the top of Mount Santa Lucia in California to capture a total solar eclipse. The moment of complete eclipse — known as 'totality' — only lasted for about 2 minutes, and Watkins only had time to make one perfect exposure.

With a team of professors and astronomers, Watkins trekked to the top of the northern Californian mountain and had to wait for over an hour for the moon to take position in front of the sun.

Solar Eclipse from Mount Santa Lucia, by Carleton Watkins, 1889 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

The photo that he took is eerie and haunting. Watkins' perspective makes it seem as though the clouds and moon/sun combo are beneath the trees, giving the image a surreality that matches the unusual event of its subject matter. The J. Paul Getty Museum (which is the current home of Watkins' photograph) write, "the radiating sun, its brilliance hidden by the black moon, lies suspended over a sea of clouds whose rippling waves dominate the sky. Only the inclusion of the treetops in the foreground serves to ground the image in a familiar reality."

Solar Eclipse from Mount Santa Lucia, by Carleton Watkins, 1889 (From the collection of The J. Paul Getty Museum)

If you take the perfect photo of the Great American Eclipse today, remember you're part of a tradition that goes back over 128 years 🌚.

Explore more photos by Carleton Watkins here.

Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
Credits: All media
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