Chapter Nine

Valparaíso 1850--New Directions[1]


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During the second half of 1849 we believe that Carleton Watkins’ skills in the dagerreian art were cultivated on the job at Vance y Cia., no. 113 calle de la Aduana in Valparaíso as he operated the cameras for Robert Vance, who was in Bolivia and Peru until mid-1850.[2]  During this hypothetical year-long apprenticeship Carleton spent five to ten hours a day making daguerreotypes and would have accumulated between three and four thousand hours learning the secrets of the dark chamber.[3]  This experience took him quite a ways to the ten thousand hours of practice that perceptual psychologists say is required to achieve world-class mastery in any endeavor.[4]  No letters, diaries, journals or other reports exist to reveal the specifics about Carleton’s presumed life in Valparaíso however some aspects can be forensically reconstructed from public information about patterns of daily life and from the history of photography there.  

For example, after Carleton had been making daguerreotype portraits at Vance y Cía. for approximately six months, December 21 brought the summer solstice and longest day of the year.  It was also the season of peak arrivals of vessels—a half dozen or more daily--in transit to California from the U. S. East Coast via Cape Horn and the Strait of Magellan.[5]  The Vance y Cía. studio was located one city block from the Custom House and its landmark octagonal tower and was close to the Merchants Exchange with its reading room and library of foreign newspapers imported from North America and Europe. 

The Custom House faced the public landing, where the North American voyagers first set foot on the dry land after leaving Rio de Janeiro four-to-eight weeks before, depending on whether the vessel was powered by wind or steam.  The days in late December were long with more than fourteen hours of light thus maximizing the time available for picture-making.  With vessels arriving daily from the south, Carleton operated the cameras from morning until the light failed and in the process became an expert in the mechanics of making a daguerreotype.


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[1] With thanks to Abel Alexander, Alejandro de la Fuente, Carlos Gabriel Vertanessian, Peter Helsby, Rob Caldicott,  and Hernán Rodríguez Villegas. Special thanks to Joanna Kennedy for her skillful proofreading and to Mike Robinson, Karen Heselton and Steve Heselton for their continuing guidance.

[2] See Chapter Seven, Figs 6, 7 8, for examples of the monuments and landscape Vance encountered.

[3] See Chapter Eight, Figs. 4, 5, 6, for illustrations of daguerreian materials.

[4] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008, pp. 37-42.

[5]Jay Monaghan, Chile, Peru and the California Gold Rush of 1849, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1973,  p. 21