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 Man Without a Face[1]


          One of the many mysteries surrounding the life of Carleton Watkins—considering the fact that his lasting fame resides in the estimated ten thousand[2] photographs he created over his forty year career--is the absence of photographs of his face.   We don't know what he looked like as a child growing up in Oneonta, New York in the 1830s, or as a teenage emigrant to the West Coast in 1849, or as a journeyman photographer in the 1850s, or even the look in his eye when he became world-famous in 1867.[3]    It is unbelievable that there are no securely identified photographs of Watkins made during his first two decades in California, when he was frequently in contact with some of the most notable daguerreian and wet-plate studios in San Francisco of his era including, Frederick Coombs, George Fardon, James M. Ford, George H. Johnson, Lawrence & Houseworth, Silas Selleck,  the  Shew Brothers, and Robert Vance, among others.  Watkins is believed to have been the anonymous "outdoor man"[4] for these and other portrait studios of the 1850s and 1860s.   

          Watkins sometimes included himself in his pictures as a shadow cast on the ground [Figs. 1-3] when he was working with the sun to his back in the early mornings or late afternoons--his favorite picture-making hours.  For almost two decades until about 1868 Watkins never showed his face in a picture, which raises the question, Did he have something to hide?  Were there social, political, business or legal reasons why he did not want his face to be recognized?  The answer is arguably, yes. 

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[1] All references cited below in the form of: NAME, YEAR, PAGE, are found in Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (hereafter CMP), pp. 548-59.

[2] Estimated five hundred or more lost daguerreotypes; estimated 1,000 or more lost portraits; 1,273 known mammoth-plates; 300 or more lost mammoth-plates; 5,000 known stereographs; estimated 2,000 or more lost stereographs.  

[3] Gold Medal, Exposition Universelle de 1867,  Paris

[4] Portraitists were tied to their places of business meaning the proprietor could not disappear from the studio for the time needed to photograph a house, storefront, gravesite, sailing ship, or mining operation, subjects that were Watkins's specialties.