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Homo Faber—Man as Maker



          The history of photography was indelibly changed by the storied meeting of Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) and Robert Vance (1825-1876), who introduced the young man to the natural magic of photography. The legend that Carleton met his mentor through a chance encounter is unchallenged because that is what he told his biographer, Charles Turrill.[1]  We closed Chapter Six telling how Turrill said the encounter with Vance took place in "San José."  Turrill presumed the place was San José, California, but it has since been established why this was implausible.[2]  Rather, there are strong reasons to believe that Carleton met Vance in South America, and not necessarily in a place named San José. 

           Vance was a personable and ambitious daguerreotypist, who shortly after learning the craft in Boston, decamped for Chile at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two.[3] Once there he explored several options to practice his new trade.  Historian Abel Alexander[4] has shown that Vance arrived in Valparaiso in early 1847 before gold was discovered in California, and before Carleton arrived in Panama.[5]  During his first year in Chile, Vance found himself a partner by the name of Hoyett, and with him explored a variety of the inland and coastal locations reached from Valparaiso, including Santiago, Coquimbo, Concepcion, and Copiapó [Fig. 1].  It would have been natural for Vance to record visually the landscape and built environment of the exciting new places he visited during his first year in Chile, but he showed no interest in making pictures outdoors and instead devoted himself exclusively to portraits made in a controlled studio environment.[6]       

          Carleton was nineteen-going-on-twenty when he met Vance–a naive teenager who was flush from almost three months of hard work in Panama with the group from Otsego County, New York, organized by Collis Huntington.[7]  Carleton could have started his odyssey south from


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[1] Charles B Turrill, "An Early California Photographer: C. E. Watkins," News Notes of California Libraries, 13 (no. 1, January 1918), p. 30.

[2] Peter E. Palmquist, Carleton Watkins: Photographer of the American West, Albuquerque, 1983, p. 6, note. 11 (cited hereafter as PEP 1983). 

[3] The month and day of Vance's birth in 1825 was unknown to Palmquist & Kailbourn in 2000, but appears to have been in the second half of 1825 based on the timing of his inheritance distributions (see Note 10).

[4] Abel Alexander, "Robert H. Vance: Pioneer of the Daguerreotype in Chile," The Daguerreian Annual, 1993, pp. 11-30 (Translated from Spanish by Thomas Kailbourn). 

[5] See Chasing Aurora, Chapters Five, Six.

[6] Alexander, p. 22.

[7] See Chasing Aurora, Chapter Four.