Carleton Watkins

Quick Facts

Significance:
Photographer
Place of Birth:
New York
Date of Birth:
1829
Place of Death:
Napa, California
Date of Death:
1916
Place of Burial:
Napa, California
Cemetery Name:
Napa State Hospital Grounds

Carleton Watkins was born in New York as the oldest of eight children. Watkins moved to California early in his life, living in San Francisco. He worked odd jobs in the city until he found work looking after a photography studio. The owner taught Watkins photography basics. It was in California where Watkins’ love and skill of photography was developed.

In 1858, Watkins started his own photography business. He was best known for his landscape photography, specifically of Yosemite. His photographs were seen by people who lived in the eastern United States and had never seen the West. Watkins’ photography became popular after he was hired by the California Geological Survey to take photographs of Yosemite. His pictures of Half Dome made the landscape famous.

Watkins created iconic photographs that influenced decision-makers; it is rumored that Watkins’ photographs of Yosemite were passed around Congress. In 1864, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Act, which protected Yosemite Valley as state park. This first designation, and Watkins’ continued work with photography, helped pave the way for the National Park System.

A few years after his success with Yosemite landscapes, Watkins opened his own art gallery. Unfortunately, he was not a great businessman. He lost the gallery, and the new owners took possession of his photos and refused to give Watkins credit. There was no copyright to protect Watkins at the time. As a result, Watkins had to create a new series of photos.

In 1878, Watkins got married and had two children. In the 1890s, he started to lose his vision and could no longer take pictures. He lost his income, and his family was faced with homelessness. Watkins’ luck continued to go downhill. All of the new work he had created after losing his gallery of photographs was destroyed by natural disasters in 1906. He lost everything.

Watkins retired in California. He was declared mentally unfit to live alone shortly after retiring. His daughter cared for him but eventually had to send Watkins to the Napa State Hospital for the Insane. Watkins died in 1916 at the hospital and was buried on the grounds.

Despite his misfortune, Watkins left a profound legacy that helped preserve the national parks for future generations.