Carleton Watkins Homo Faber—Man as Maker
In his essay on Vance in Chile, Alexander, who is descended from pioneer photographer, Adolfo Alexander, recognized there were peculiarities in the choices Vance made that forced some quite provocative questions. For example, Alexander asked, "What impulse made [Vance] abandon [Boston], one of the most elegant cities of the Union to venture into unknown lands?" The question could have been sharpened by adding parenthetically that in 1846, Vance was also a handsome and wealthy young man in Boston, a place with a huge appetite for aristocratic eligible bachelors. One choice would have been to marry well and raise a family there.
Alexander asked further why Vance failed to explore the possibility of commercially exploiting the daguerreotype elsewhere in the southern hemisphere such as ". . .in the great Latin American cities [like] the imperial court of Rio de Janeiro or cosmopolitan Buenos Aires and instead travel directly to the extreme south of the continent as his final destination?" Alexander continued his analysis asking, "What combination of motives kept this young and ambitious entrepreneur in that small Andean nation for over three years, while constantly receiving news so auspicious for his daguerreian profession as the Mexican War, and the collective madness that gripped Valparaiso as steamers unloaded gold recently extracted from the California gold fields?" In making Valparaiso his destination, Vance passed up several opportunities to profit from his trade in places he passed by on the way there.
Vance surely would not have been attracted to Valparaiso because of its physical beauty or its proximity to Boston. For most North American visitors Valparaiso was a tough, hardscrabble place with no picturesque beauty [Fig. 2], a fact that was noted by many travel writers of the time: "Instead of justifying the name it bears — the Vale of Paradise — [Valparaiso] might rather be called some outpost of purgatory . . .", wrote one visitor in 1845. Another visitor called it "the ugliest hole in the world." Moreover, living there was expensive because food and even drinking water had to be brought from elsewhere.