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Carleton Watkins:

The Art of Perception

At the National Gallery of Art to May 7

C an a classical photograph age into a work of l’art brut? Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916) masterfully captured rugged, misty sea stacks and glassy lake surfaces—but for every gorgeous vista he framed, he made an equally monumental print of a mine, railroad, dam, or logging mill. From today’s perspective, the former works communicate beauty and the latter tell of despoliation, but, as the curators of “Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception” point out, people in Watkins’ time thought quite differently.

Despite the quality of his work and a career that spanned almost half a century, Watkins has to be one of America’s least-known great photographers. Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography—the field’s classic survey, revised five times between 1937 and 1982—includes nothing more than a fleeting mention of Watkins, inserted mainly to counter the notion that William Henry Jackson was the only photographer to drag heavy camera equipment into the wilds of the newly settled West in the mid-19th century. Watkins, as Newhall succinctly reports, did it first.

It did not help Watkins’ later reputation that the final 25 years of his life were spent in a terrifying freefall. He became blind and ill, then was forced by poverty to move his family into a boxcar. He spent the six years before his death in the Napa State Hospital for the Insane and was buried in an unmarked grave. Perhaps the ultimate indignity was that much of his life’s output was destroyed by the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (The quake hit just days after he had closed a deal to sell a large portion of his collection to Stanford University.) Fortunately, some of Watkins’ work had already made its way to other people’s hands—enough so that curators were able to mount “The Art of Perception,” now at the National Gallery of Art. It’s high time Watkins’ luck changed.

I first learned about Watkins a few years ago while reading what was to become my favorite book about photography—Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures From the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, by John Szarkowski. In the book, Szarkowski meditates on photographs by 100 different artists, offering an insightful paragraph or two on what each work exemplifies about the medium. The Watkins photograph that Szarkowski chose was Arbutus Menziesii Pursh, a straightforward image of a roundish tree in central California. Simple, yes—just a tree in a field, with parallel stakes running off into an indistinct, hilly horizon—but it struck me as strangely compelling. I was thinking of it several years ago as I snapped an image of a tree across from my parents’ apartment building, a photograph that has hung on my wall ever since. But it still took me a while to put my finger on why I was so attracted to Arbutus Menziesii Pursh.

Eventually, I realized that, more than anything else, it was the photograph’s modern sensibility that had won me over. In Szarkowski’s rigidly chronological, 215-page volume, the photograph is on Page 20, where it sits amidst dozens of distinctly old-fashioned images.

You won’t find Arbutus at the National Gallery—it was included only in the exhibit’s San Francisco stop—but similar photographs of trees, most notably Oak Tree, will give local viewers a good sense of what I’m talking about. Indeed, the modernity exemplified by Arbutus is apparent throughout the exhibition. As curator Douglas R. Nickel writes:

For here is the essence of the problem: Carleton Watkins made photographs that are more modern in appearance than our understanding of art history ought to allow. Their alternation between, at times, an elaborate manipulation of abstracted space, compositional torque, and acute detail and, at others, an almost naive and totemic directness suggests the kind of formal gamesmanship we might expect of a perceptive artist working after the advent of Cubism, but not of a struggling tradesman in San Francisco in the 1860s. In Watkins’s photographs we find skies hanging as featureless voids behind cutout cliffs, or peaches crated into abstract grids; whole landscapes may be rendered inverted on the surface of a stream.

One possible explanation for Watkins’ eerily prescient modernism stems from his obvious comfort with mechanical and industrial progress.

Watkins’ images hold up not merely as documentary evidence of Manifest Destiny and industrial expansion, but also as art in and of themselves. It’s hard not to look at his industrial scenes—bridges with geometrical trusses, mining operations’ billowy water jets, dams that look as if they were made of toothpicks—and not find them, in their own way, as beautiful as his sweeping natural views. Think of Watkins’ photographs as a cross between Ansel Adams’ and Lewis Hine’s—made by a man who lived roughly a century earlier, used primitive equipment, and faced greater logistical challenges. (In the wilds of the Yosemite, Watkins and his assistants had to use pack animals to lug dozens of 18-by-22-inch glass plates, photographic chemicals, a darkroom tent, and numerous other pieces of equipment.)

Watkins’ images also seem timeless. A year and a half ago, on assignment near Chico, Calif., I noticed rotund trees like Watkins’ all over the place, even in that archetypal 20th-century location, the highway median. Ditto for yucca trees I saw in the Mojave desert. As long as you can tune out the hordes of tourists, the numerous vistas Watkins shot in the Yosemite Valley look much the same today, thanks to decades of federal protection by the National Park Service. The same goes for Watkins’ Pacific coast and Columbia River scenes, right down to the wooden shacks and ever-present train tracks heading off into the distance.

Many of Watkins’ photographs were in the stereograph format—two side-by-side images taken by slightly misaligned twin cameras. When viewed in a hand-held contraption—a popular form of entertainment during Victorian times—the two photos are supposed to meld into one three-dimensional image. Without a viewer, stereographs are nothing special; compared with Watkins’ mammoth prints and panoramas, which at their largest measure 18 by 22 inches, the stereograph images seem tiny and unremarkable. (The antique viewer on display will be useless to many visitors, especially those who wear glasses.) So the challenge for “The Art of Perception”‘s curators was finding a way to bring the experience alive for a modern audience.

The Williams College Museum of Art made good use of its stereo prints in the recent exhibit “The Panama Canal and the Art of Construction.” The show’s curators printed postcard-sized reproductions of a number of stereo cards that document the canal’s construction and left them on a table with a simple, adjustable, wood-and-wire viewer. Visitors were invited to fiddle around with the viewer, then take a card or two home as souvenirs.

For the Watkins show, the curators have gone one step—or, more accurately, dozens of steps—further. They have installed computer viewing stations where visitors can don specially designed glasses and click their way through digitized versions of Watkins’ photographs. For instance, viewed by itself, the circa 1878 stereograph

Victoria Regia is hard to read; it appears to be a lily pad on water inside a botanical garden. Only when viewed in 3-D does the image explode and shimmer with depth.

The machines were balky when I visited, and not every photograph worked equally well. But when everything was in tune, the results were often jaw-dropping. Receding landscapes really do recede, vertical objects leap up dramatically, and arches and columns do their best impressions of bits of M.C. Escher’s drawings. Visitors can flip through Watkins’ images (including many not found in the show) at their own pace and in any number of ways—chronologically, geographically, even thematically. Only a few terminals are available, but, by all means, brave the lines. This 21st-century updating of Watkins’ work is a marvelous melding of technology and art. I think—no, I’m certain—that he would have approved. CP