The first comprehensive landscape photos ever taken of the Columbia River Gorge were captured 150 years ago this month by Carleton Watkins, a world famous photographer who was at the height of his career.
As a young man, Watkins had gone to San Francisco to chase the Gold Rush. Instead, he landed a job with a photographer and quickly learned the ropes. In nine years, he went from being an unknown prospector to embarking on one of the most important photography projects in U.S. history.
Watkins, born 73 years before Ansel Adams, captured classic views in Yosemite before almost any one else. The entrance to the valley, El Capitan, Half Dome all stand as giants in his timeless images over a century-and-half later.
These images are mammoth prints. For reference, a standard disposable camera’s photograph is 4-by-3 inches. His prints were typically 18-by-22 inches.
He was the first American landscape photographer to construct a camera that could create such large negatives.
The massive size and the rugged, pristine beauty of the wilderness flooded viewers. For some east coasters, these were the first images they ever saw Yosemite. The prints helped inspire a law to protect Yosemite. It was the first time the federal government set aside land for conservation and public use — anywhere in the world.
The bill was signed into law by President Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War. It would go on to give birth to America’s National Park Service.
In 1867 his Yosemite images were displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris and he won a gold medal for landscape photography.
That same year, Watkins jumped aboard a steamship and captured The Columbia River Gorge
He returned to Oregon a handful more times, capturing some of the earliest images of Oregon City and Portland.
But a few years later, Watkins fell onto hard times. His offices in San Francisco were destroyed in the great earthquake. He lost his life’s work, and shortly later he lost his grip on reality.
Carleton Watkins was committed to Napa State Hospital, an insane asylum, where eventually he died and was buried in an unmarked grave on the grounds.
Today, Watkins’ work is largely forgotten to history. But a generation before Ansel Adams, Carleton Watkins’ powerful photography helped spark a new idea: Natural spaces are worth protecting.