Chapter Twelve

Daguerreian in the Mother Lode


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Carleton Watkins made the first of his almost thirteen hundred mammoth plate photographs in about 1858.[1]  Over the next forty years he pursued a storied career in photography.  However, much of what we know about his life before the first mammoth plate relies on the analytic tool of inference.  Inference helps to establish the validity of events that are presumed to be true based on the evidence of interconnected circumstances. The inferential process in art history is like analyzing a fingerprint found at the scene of a crime to identify a suspect.  In photographs there are visual fingerprints imbedded in the structure, composition, materials and view point of every picture.  These "formal elements" imposed on the work by its maker during the creative process are indelible markers of the maker's identity.[2]  Such visual fingerprints are key evidence when attributing works to a particular photographer in cases where the maker is unknown or the present attribution is in question.   The majority of the surviving daguerreotypes made in Gold Rush era California are maker-unknown,[3] as well as being of exceptional artistic, cultural and historical importance. We believe the frequently repeated visual patterns are marks of a single master photographer.  We thus have an art historical situation that not just invites, but rather compels the proposal of ideas about their authorship.       

However, before we look at some Gold Rush era daguerreotypes to evaluate the visual evidence for proposing attributions, let us consider another aspect of the process of attributing works of art including photographs.  Biographical information complements analysis of formal elements.  In Carleton Watkins' life the two most influential people in nearly a decade between his mastery of the daguerreotype and when he made the first mammoth plate photograph were:  Collis P. Huntington, who enabled his emigration west from New York,[4] and Robert Vance, who was Carleton's first mentor in the art of photography.[5]   Much more is known about the lives of Huntington and Vance in the decade between 1849 and 1859 than that of Carleton, who, like a shadow, was a continuous background presence in the


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[1]Weston  Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis, Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Plate Photographs, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.

[2] Meyer Schapiro, "Style," in A. L. Kroeber, ed., Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953, pp. 287-312.

[3] Chapter Thirteen will address issues raised by instances of Gold Rush era daguerreotypes that are found in cases marked with a maker's name.  

[4] See Chapters 4, 5, 6 for journey to and time spent in Panama. 

[5] See Chapters 7, 8, 9 for Carleton in Valparaíso.