What Mars is to all of us now, California and the West used to be--150 years ago--to folks back East. They heard stories about it, were skeptical and longed for concrete evidence of what it was like to be there. Say, a photograph. But early photography was as delicate, cumbersome and uncertain as space exploration is today. Taking a really good photograph of the West's awesome mountains and rivers required a pack mule; a specially constructed camera yielding huge, detailed, 18-by-20-inch negatives, and arduous treks over difficult terrain. At least, that's what the beautiful photographs of Carleton Watkins demonstrate in a new retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Sept. 7.
Watkins was born in upstate New York in 1829, where he was a childhood friend of future railroad magnate Collis Huntington. He arrived in San Francisco with the gold rush, took up photography and was an instant success as a documentarian. Huntington made him his railroad's photographer. But Watkins went bankrupt in the panic of 1873, and started over. "If this business don't give us a living soon," he wrote his wife in 1880, "we will go squat on some government land and raise spuds." Watkins managed a comeback of sorts--taking real-estate photographs--but lost everything a second time, in the 1906 earthquake. Watkins died at 86, in a mental hospital. Some say he was an early Ansel Adams, but to us he was more like the first Pathfinder.Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception.SFMoMA. Through Sept. 7.