Chapter Eleven

A Delicate Balance

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The steamship Panama, operated by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company with Robert Vance and Carleton Watkins believed to be on board, passed through the Golden Gate on Sunday, September, 22, 1850.  The plan was for Vance to commence “. . .another type of business. . .”[1] in San Francisco and for Carleton to connect with Collis Huntington and the other Otsego County boys residing in Sacramento.  At the moment of their arrival the Gold Rush in California had been underway for more than two years and yet there were a limited number of pictures of any kind that faithfully showed scenes of daily life in the land of chrysopylae.[2] 

We must imagine it was Vance manifesting his strong business sense who had the idea to fill that visual gap with an ambitious series of daguerreotypes that would be unparalleled in the history of American photography.  The idea could have been inspired by Vance’s “ah-ha moment" of recognition that his protégé, Carleton, showed genius for a new kind of photography—pictures made outdoors—pictures that were: “. . .the stereotyped impression of the real thing itself,” not “exaggerated and high-colored sketches, got up to produce effect. . .” as Vance described the series after the project was complete [Fig. 1].[3]   As to whether Vance could have traveled to the sites and operated the camera himself, there is nothing to prove that Vance created even a single daguerreotype showing scenery or architecture during almost five years of travel through Chile, Bolivia and Peru where he encountered ancient ruins and magnificent landscapes that should have been irresistible subjects to a photographer.[4]  His heart was in portraiture, and there is no reason to believe that Vance suddenly became a field photographer in California. Rather, we believe that after arriving in California in late 1850 Carleton was enlisted to take Vance’s apparatus to Sacramento and nearby locations to make daguerreotypes showing typical scenes using costly materials supplied by his backer. Meanwhile, we believe Vance remained in San Francisco to pursue other opportunities.[5]


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[1] R[obert] H. Vance, Arequippa, Peru, ALS, to Messrs. Hale & Co., Boston, July 26, 1849, private collection.

[2] J. E. Sherwood, The Pocket Guide to California, New York, J. E. Sherwood, 1849, p. 12, Where John Frémont is credited with first using chrysopylae to describe the “Golden Gate.”

[3] R[obert] H. Vance,  Catalogue of Daguerreotype Panoramic Views in California, New York: 1851, p. iii.

[4] See Chapter Four, Figs. 6-8. 

[5] Palmquist & Kailbourn (2000), pp. 560-561.