What California Looks Like

Spent a few days in Yosemite, one of the most glorious places on Earth, and decided I should post this essay I wrote for an alumni magazine about one of its first and greatest photographers. It's not online anywhere else, so, here it is:

When I was living in New York, working for a travel magazine, I began to collect very old photographs of where I was from, which was California. I don’t mean that I acquired these images in any traditional sense. I wasn’t prowling flea markets or auctions, nor did I own the physical photographs. I just downloaded digital copies of the ones I was particularly drawn to and kept them all in a folder -- at first, for years, on my computer’s hard drive, and now, in the cloud, on several hard drives, owned by Google and Amazon and maybe even some other company or branch of government. Looking at my collection today, I have a difficult time remembering exactly what it was that prompted me to begin in the first place. I’d like to say it was to ease nostalgia, in the original sense of the word: the pain (algos, in Greek) of being away from home (nostos). But it wasn’t that, because I’d already been away for years, first in Chicago, then in Delhi. And besides, I loved New York and honestly don’t remember missing California much until the very end, after nearly thirteen years away,  just before I moved back.

The move prompted me to reexamine what I had been compiling all those years. A move prompts all sorts of fresh-eyed reexaminations, but I didn’t get to the old photos until recently. What prompted me, in fact, was a strange familiarity with a photo of my own -- one that I’d taken not long after my return. It was snapped quickly, from my phone, as I slowed on a long drive through a back-country road, headed east towards the last remaining big grassy plain in the state. I braked not to take a photograph, but because a pronghorn antelope had appeared, very briefly, beside a fence. I saw it, slowed, and then it was gone. So instead I took out my phone and shot straight ahead, looking down the road. There’s nothing striking about the image: the road winds through a few rolling hills that lead up to a sudden and pleasing but not particularly impressive mountain range. The land is dry, mostly dusty yellows, browns, and greys against a cobalt blue sky, but there are also a few oaks up ahead, a field cleared for farming, and a tall, spindly pole for power lines. Mostly, though, the land in front of me looked untamed. It looked like a California from a long time ago.

It looked, I realized, like a particular image I’d collected, taken from a high location, some of which appears in the foreground, before dropping off into a valley where a road also winds before disappearing into the middle distance, which is again cut by a row of easy, low, rolling coastal mountains. The image is of the Carmel Valley, in 1874 or ’75, taken from Mission Road. The original photograph had been printed on a mammoth plate, an 18-by-21-inch rectangle of glass. The man who took the picture was named Carleton E. Watkins, and until that moment, researching the provenance of the photo that reminded me of my own, I hadn’t noticed that almost my entire collection was made up of photographs by Watkins.

He was everywhere in California in those early days of photography and statehood. Born in upstate New York, Watkins left in 1849, at 19 years old, and stopped in Panama, then Lima, then Valparaiso before eventually landing in Sacramento in 1852. He tried his hand at mining—the gold rush was still going strong—and when that failed to pan out he settled in San Francisco, finding a job as a clerk in a bookstore and another as a camera operator for a few of the first professional photographers in the city. His job—setting up the big awkward rigs, scouting locations, and fussing with the gear as the photographer huddled inside the heavy drapery surrounding the lens—had a wonderful name:  he was an “outdoor man.” After a few years learning the trade, he saved enough to buy gear of his own. A friend gave him a job delivering goods to mining operations up the Sacramento River, and as he traveled these trade routes into the California interior he made daguerreotypes of the landscape, selling them back in the city. I like to think he took the outdoor man title very seriously, because for the rest of his life, the most significant images he made were in the wilderness.

It was the size of the landscape that inspired him, in 1861, to build a camera large enough to capture it. He hired a cabinetmaker, and the two of them constructed his mammoth plate rig. Then, he traveled somewhere that would change his life, and career, and our history: Yosemite. It was at first the rumor of the trees that drew him there. At the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees he took a series of one colossal sequoia, the Grizzly Giant. Ralph Waldo Emerson, seeing Watkins’ images, said they “made the tree possible.” What he meant was that Watkins took what had been a fantastic rumor of natural splendor and brought evidence of it to the world. In capturing the tree, he manifested it. Watkins returned to the Yosemite Valley throughout the 1860s and 70s, making images for the California State Geological Survey that would lead to its protection, first by the state, then by the federal government.

By 1871 his mammoth-plate Yosemite images had gained such renown that he opened a gallery dedicated to them, in downtown San Francisco. He traveled along the coast, and out to the Farallon Islands; he shot the geysers in Sonoma, the Central Pacific Railroad cutting through the Sierras, the new and massive hydraulic gold mines, and Mount Shasta. In Southern California he made brilliant images of new crops and irrigation systems, depicting a rough man-made geometry up against a still mostly unsettled land. But his eyesight was failing, as were his fortunes, and by 1895 he was living, with his wife and two children, out of an abandoned railroad boxcar. The 1906 earthquake and fire left him destitute -- thousands of his mammoth plates (40 years of work) were destroyed—and when he died in the Napa State Hospital in 1916 he had been blind and living in obscurity for nearly a decade.

When I was reading about Watkins and researching his recent exhibits, I noticed that the word “edenic” kept appearing to describe his work—what Watkins captured was a “lost, edenic California.” But I don’t see that at all. Apart from the ones of Yosemite and the Mendocino coast, his images are almost entirely about a taming of the land. And even in the images that show nothing man made, I still see the work involved -- his work:  the framing, the careful camera placement, the way the line of a tree often draws one’s eye up to a distant peak or rock formation. What I see is an attempt to capture, instead of something imagined, something real. Watkins’ landscapes stand in stark contrast to much of the photography in that early era of the still-young form, when many “artful” photographers were attempting to be what artists then were assumed to be, and to reach the esteem of art through their work. I think of Henry Peach Robinson, whose staged image of a dying girl surrounded by her grieving relatives looked painterly, but was met with annoyance if not outright offense. As anyone can tell, the image is not true; the girl in the photograph is not dying. It’s hard to know exactly what a real dying girl might look like, but we can intuit truth in a still image just as we can in a painting. We know it when we see it.

My favorite of Watkins’ Yosemite mammoth plates is not a particularly famous or grand vista, but it is to me the truest. It’s a view of Mirror Lake. The far shoreline of the lake, a ghostly white, is at the dead center of the frame, bisecting the picture perfectly. Below it lies the lake, and in the lake is a reflection of a mountain -- one of the amazing granite monoliths that rise from the Yosemite Valley, but certainly not among the most recognizable. Then, above the white sand of the lakeshore, rising above the skinny pines, is the mountain itself, which ended up being named after Watkins, several years after he stood on the lakeshore, capturing the image. When he stood there, under the heavy drapery, staring into the ground glass of his big lens, the image would have appeared upside down, as the images always did through the lens of his rig. The mountain below, Mirror Lake on top, with its mirror image of the mountain in its reflection—Watkins would have, for the first time, seen what he was photographing the way it appeared, sky side up. I love thinking about all the reflections happening to make the mountain appear as it should, through the lake surface and the lens, then through another lens, in Watkins’ own eye, the waves of light flipped again and again until one aspect of the image appears, to him, the right way. It reminds me of the difficulty of seeing anything for what it really is, and how quite often time, distance, and some reflection help me notice what is most true.