Carleton Watkins                  Valparaíso 1850--New Directions



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The day following the summer solstice, December 22, 1849, a strong earthquake shook Valparaíso.  It was one of a month-long swarm of earthquakes starting in mid-November, many being above 7.00 on the present-day Richter scale.  According to first hand reports the earth trembled almost daily for more than a month.  The seismic events were recorded and analyzed by a team of U. S. Naval officers stationed in Valparaíso, who described the terror inflicted by the convulsions.[6] However, not a single daguerreotype or other photograph is known to have been made showing the aftermath of the 1849 Chilean earthquakes, even though there were no technical obstacles to the possibility of such images. 

While it is possible there were no pictures because the damage was too catastrophic for business as usual or it was not catastrophic enough to attract photographers, the more likely reason was that no tradition of field photography existed in Chile in 1849.  There was no money to be made from daguerreotypes that showed places.[7]  Clients paid to be immortalized and virtually all daguerreians went into the business for the money, not for the abstract thrill of seeing three dimensions transformed into two.  However, it was the magic of photography, not money that transfixed Carleton, who had just turned twenty-years-old.  He would spend the next four decades operating his cameras in sometimes isolated locations driven by the experience of seeing the three dimensions of nature miraculously transformed into two dimensions by the action of sunlight transmitted through a lens onto a silver-sensitized surface and developed before his very eyes. 

On the other hand, a new attitude to daguerreian picture-making began to unfold in Valparaíso at the end of 1849 and the first half of 1850, signaled by three daguerreotype views showing buildings and panoramic overviews that Vance carried with him from Valparaíso to San Francisco, then on to New York.[8]  In his “Catalogue” [Fig. 1] Vance titled the first, “A Portion of Valparaíso” (no. 109).  The second showed a view of the “English Admiral’s House” (no. 130), and the third was a view “From the American Consul’s Residence” (no. 131).  It should be remembered that Vance was a dedicated portraitist and there is no record of his making views of landscape


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[6] Lieut. James Melvin Gillis, U. S. Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere, During the Years1849-’50-’51-’52, Washington, A. O. P. Nicholson, Printer, 1855, pp. 105-106.

[7] For example the Ward Brothers, active in Valparaíso from 1844-1847, reportedly made five hundred daguerreotype portraits in Santiago and Valparaíso along with paintings and drawings of landscape.  However, no daguerreotype landscape views are known to have been made.  See Rodríguez, pp. 56-57.

[8] The three now lost Valparaíso daguerreotypes, along with other now lost Latin American views were in the possession of Robert Vance and cataloged by him on the occasion of their exhibition in New York in October, 1851, along with his collection of “Daguerreotype Panoramic Views in California.”