Taysayac, Half Dome, 4967 Ft., Yosemite

 
Artist
Creation date
Materials
mammoth plate albumen print
Mark Descriptions
signed in ink,on mount, L.R.: C.E. Watkins; inscribed in pencil, on mount, L.R.: CEW 191X Tasayac - Half Dome - 4967 ft - Yosemite
Dimensions
15 3/8 x 20 3/8 in. (image) 21 x 27 in.(sheet)
Credit line
Delavan Smith Fund
Accession number
1994.38
Collection
Not Currently On View

In the summer of 1861 Watkins, a San Francisco based photographer, hauled a ton of photographic equipment 200 miles into the recently discovered Yosemite Valley. His large format photographs created a sensation in the East and convinced Congress in 1864 to preserve the valley as a future national park.

“Without crossing the continent . . . we are able to step from our study into the wonders of the wondrous valley and gaze at our leisure on its amazing features.” —The Philadelphia Photographer, 1861

(Lee Marks Fine Art, Shelbyville, Indiana); purchased by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1994 (1994.38).
Reproduction of these images, including downloading, is prohibited without written authorization from VAGA.

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Watkins’ Yosemite

"One day in early July 1861, Carleton Watkins set up his cumbersome camera along the Merced River and aimed it eastward up the Yosemite Valley toward Tasayac, or Half Dome, a peak that towered a half mile above the valley floor. In that instant, Watkins captured for the first time what millions of park visitors would subsequently shoot from that same vantage point.

The awed reports of the first visitors to Yosemite convinced Watkins to venture the two hundred miles from San Francisco, trundling by pack mule nearly a ton of gear, including an entire portable photographic studio. This included his mammoth camera, nearly three feet square and built to a size never before used in the western landscape, but necessary to produce negatives (and positives) that would measure up to the magnitude of the scenery. The physical challenges of fieldwork and the technical limitations of the relatively new art of photography were imperceptible in Watkins's exposures, which were as breathlessly still, immaculate, and perfectly composed as the place itself. Watkins's thirty large-format images were exhibited in New York in 1862. They proved to incredulous easterners, as only photography could, that the marvels of Yosemite were a fact and motivated Congress in 1864 to set aside and protect the Valley forever."

Lee, Ellen Wardwell, Anne Robinson, and Alexandra Bonfante-Warren. Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2005, p. 162.

Influence on the Creation of a National Park

“Watkins was the first to make photographs in Yosemite, work that he shared with Charles L. Weed, who used it as the starting point for his 1859 campaign of photography there. The circumstances surrounding Watkins’s 1861 photographic excursion to Yosemite Valley are better known than those of his visit (or visits) made before 1860 to create the pictures used as sources for [James Mason] Hutchings’s engravers. He traveled to Yosemite from the town of Mariposa with the party organized by Trenor Park in early July 1861. Park’s daughter, Laura, in a letter to her father in November mentions the work that Watkins did and her great anticipation at soon seeing the results.

William H. Brewer reported seeing the 1861 views in a letter to Josiah D. Whitney in January 1862. In December of that year Watkins’s Yosemite photographs were exhibited for the first time at the Goupil Gallery in New York City, and in 1863 Senator John Conness is believed to have shown them to President Abraham Lincoln, who responded by granting Yosemite Valley and the surrounding area to the State of California with the mandate that the site be forever in the public domain. Watkins’s work thus played a part in the later establishment of Yosemite National Park, just as William Henry Jackson’s photographs influenced the creation of Yellowstone National Park for than a decade later.”

Naef, Weston. J. Carelton Watkins in Yosemite Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

One day in early July 1861, Carleton Watkins set up his cumbersome camera along the Merced River and aimed it eastward up the Yosemite Valley toward Tasayac, or Half Dome, a peak that towered a half mile above the valley floor. In that instant, Watkins captured for the first time what millions of park visitors would subsequently shoot from that same vantage point.

The awed reports of the first visitors to Yosemite convinced Watkins to venture the two hundred miles from San Francisco, trundling by pack mule nearly a ton of gear, including an entire portable photographic studio. This included his mammoth camera, nearly three feet square and built to a size never before used in the western landscape, but necessary to produce negatives (and positives) that would measure up to the magnitude of the scenery. The physical challenges of fieldwork and the technical limitations of the relatively new art of photography were imperceptible in Watkins's exposures, which were as breathlessly still, immaculate, and perfectly composed as the place itself. Watkins's thirty large-format images were exhibited in New York in 1862. They proved to incredulous easterners, as only photography could, that the marvels of Yosemite were a fact and motivated Congress in 1864 to set aside and protect the Valley forever.

Without crossing the continent . . . we are able to step . . . from our study into the wonders of the wondrous valley, and gaze at our leisure on its amazing features.
-The Philadelphia Photographer, 1866