Carleton Watkins                    Aurora Borealis


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Nevertheless, by interviewing scores of people in addition to Watkins, Willard Huntington preserved a vivid mosaic of everyday life in the heart of New York State at the mid-point of the nineteenth century.  

                   One of the topics of the 1905 conversation between Willard Huntington and Watkins was the appearance of the Aurora Borealis across the night sky on November 13, 1833, a few days after his fourth birthday.[27]  This dramatic event could serve as a preface to the several decades that Watkins spent behind a camera because the mythological figure of Aurora was the goddess of the rising sun--a force so essential to camera-art that the first such images were called "Sun Pictures" by their inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot.  Photography as we know it did not exist until Watkins was ten years old, when experiments were underway in England by Talbot and his assistants, who were perfecting the procedures that would one day dominate Watkins's life [Fig. 2].

          Willard Huntington, who was also an essayist and poet,[28] described the aurora sighting that took place more than a decade before his own birth in prose lively enough to make us believe that he, too, had observed the celestial performance:


"It was upon this date [November 13, 1833] that a most extraordinary spectacle was furnished by an aurora borealis, accompanied by a great number of meteors and shooting stars; the streams of light in different colors extending far up toward the zenith; not alone from the vicinity of the northern horizon but seemingly emanating from other quarters of the sky as well. This marvelous celestial display created profound interest and not a little nervous excitement in Oneonta, as well as elsewhere; most of the awed population of the little hamlet being congregated in the dead of night at the junction of Main and Chestnut streets, for the purpose of comparing observations upon the startling event.  Since writing the last paragraph, Carleton E. Watkins informs me that he remembers the occasion just described, although he was but a small boy at the time. . ."[29]


While the above description effectively put words into Watkins's four-year-old mind, it was more than fitting that one of the photographer's earliest memories would involve the mythological personality, Aurora, who as goddess of the dawn, renews herself every morning and flies across the

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[27] Peter E. Palmquist, "Carleton E. Watkins:  A Biography: Oneonta, New York, 1829-1851," in The Photographic Historian, vol 8 (no. 4, Winter, 1987-88), p. [6]. 

[28] Willard V. Huntington, Yesterday: A Poem, San Francisco:  The Bancroft Company, 1888.

[29] Huntington Old Time Notes, p. 2002.