Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins


Inductee Sponsor: Ed & Marjie Lobit


Carleton Watkins is among the most respected and innovative photographers of the American West. Born in New York, Watkins moved to California during the Gold Rush and settled in San Francisco in 1853. He worked as a clerk in a bookstore until he was asked by a daguerreotypist friend to fill in for an absent employee.

Watkins’ natural gift for photography quickly became evident, and he soon opened his own photographic studio. His early work mainly consisted of outdoor photographs for land dispute cases and mining companies. He was also commissioned by several government agencies and served on the California State Geological Survey. Watkins made his first of many photographic expeditions to Yosemite in 1861, creating exquisite images of the area on stereoscopic cameras as well as mammoth glass plates that measured 18×22 inches. In 1864, Watkins’ images of Yosemite convinced Abraham Lincoln and Congress to enact the Yosemite Bill, thus protecting the area from developers. As a result of his efforts, he was the first living person to have a mountain in Yosemite name in his honor. He won fame after this legislation passed and even named his gallery the C.E. Watkins’ Yosemite Art Gallery.

Over the next forty years, despite continual economic problems, Watkins continued making mammoth plates and traveling the west. He became increasingly involved with the art scene, was a founding member of the San Francisco Art Association and participated in several exhibitions. However, his numerous projects led to further economic hardship and in 1875 lost his gallery to a creditor. Undefeated, he began again and created a “New Series” of images with a variety of subjects and formats. In 1906, he again lost everything in the San Francisco earthquake and fire. By this time Watkins was also suffering from severe arthritis, mental problems and was practically blind. He died in a state institution and was buried in an unmarked grave. His work remained virtually forgotten until an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1999.


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