In the early days of photography, and before it laid claim to any artistic value, the constraints of equipment that was bulky and difficult to operate dictated a photographer’s work setting. In both the U.S. and Europe, photography became an ally of topographical expeditions and was used primarily to document land surveys. American photographer Carleton Watkins, who started out doing portraits, worked on such expeditions and became one of the most famous photographers of southern California landscapes. While this image by Watkins taken in Yosemite Valley conforms to the conventions of late 19th-century landscape photography, it can most certainly not be reduced to mere topographical resource.
Tucked between two rocky walls, this waterfall appears to throw itself violently towards the bottom of a gaping abyss before unfolding into clear, winding streams. Carleton Watkins manages to build a small theatrical scene with a single frame, enabling the viewer to feel the clash of the natural forces at work here. In this regard, the American photographer stood out early on, turning his shots into true landscapes: into tableaux of nature recognized for their power and beauty.
On his very large plates, developed at the site of the shoot, Watkins captured nature in all its glory. The photographer knew to dismiss the technical constraints of his time and instead turned them into assets. Conceived to coincide with the object of the photograph, the exposure time and the framing were calculated based on the size and the stillness of the landscape to reveal all its majesty. Just like this waterfall, at once spectacular, fascinating and mysterious, the photographer’s Californian landscapes then become characters in their own right, like the actors from his early days as a portrait artist, and bona fide works of art.
By Anne Laurens
September 5 – October 19, 2019
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, USA