Cover of Carleton Watkins by Edited by Cantor Arts Center
Carleton Watkins
The Stanford Albums
Edited by Cantor Arts Center

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2014
280 pp.
$40.00

Cloth ISBN: 9780804792158

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Born in upstate New York in 1829, Carleton Watkins ventured west in 1848 to strike it rich. Instead of prospecting for gold, Watkins acquired a talent for photography. Through the 1860s and 1870s, Watkins charted the remote American West, and masterfully captured the vast scale and spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Among his most iconic photographs are the dramatic waterfalls, peaks, and valleys of Yosemite Valley. So moving were these images of the Valley that they were instrumental in convincing the 38th U.S. Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to pass the Yosemite Act of 1864, the first official step toward preserving the region and creating a blueprint for America's National Park System.

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums presents over 150 images from three of Watkins's albums—Photographs of the Yosemite Valley (1861 and 1865-66), Photographs of the Pacific Coast (1862-76), and Photographs of the Columbia River and Oregon (1867 and 1870)—from the Stanford University Libraries Special Collections. These images represent the definitive collection of Watkins's highest achievements. In addition to the complete albums, the book also features fifteen essays by renowned scholars of the American West, including David M. Kennedy, Alexander Nemerov, and Richard White. Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums accompanies an ambitious exhibition of the same name, on view at the Cantor Arts Center from April through August 2014.

June 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the congressional act that preserved Yosemite Valley and launched the national park system in the United States. These photographs—feats of innovation and technology at the dawn of photography—evince the beauty, power, and persuasiveness of the great American landscape.

About the author

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University offers a collection of more than 36,000 objects spanning 5,000 years, from Africa to the Americas to Asia, from classical to contemporary. With 24 galleries and more than 20 special exhibitions each year, the Cantor attracts audiences of all ages and backgrounds and welcomes nearly 200,000 visitors annually.

"The astonishing detail of the photos in Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums is explained by the mammoth glass plates that Watkins used to capture his pioneering views of natural wonders in California and the Pacific Northwest—and man's transformation of them by mining and industry. Even the fine full-page reproductions in this large landscape-format volume are only a third of the size of Watkins's immense albumen prints. The originals have so many subtle colors (mostly in the shadows) that four-color printing was chosen, with an emphasis on a full range of blacks, to maintain those tones as well as possible. That approach infuses the images, printed on matte-coated stock, with a poetic dimension more in keeping with the photographer's intentions, which might not be conveyed as successfully by fine-grained reproductions on glossy paper. The three albums are devoted, respectively, to photographs of the Pacific coast, including San Francisco, the Columbia River and Oregon, and the Yosemite Valley—photos that helped persuade Abraham Lincoln and Congress to pass the Yosemite Valley Grant Act of 1864, laying the groundwork for the national park system."

—Christopher Lyon, Bookforum

"Watkins' most famous photographs—those of Yosemite—are beautiful but now sedating in their familiarity. They capture what he and other nineteenth-century photographers and painters repeatedly inscribed as the American sublime. This is the nature that dwarfs and obliterates us."

—Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America