Watkins's wide, wide West

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Carleton watkins (1829-1916) was one of the finest landscape photographers of the 19th century. Born in Oneonta, N.Y., Watkins emigrated to California during the gold rush. He took up photography around 1854, when he suddenly was asked to replace a daguerreotypist who had walked off the job without giving notice.

After a successful start as a portraitist and commercial landscape photographer, Watkins began to perceive himself as an artist capable of the highest achievement. In 1861, when he decided to photograph the newly discovered Yosemite Valley, he had what was then the largest camera in the world built to his order. It made negatives that were 18 by 20 inches.

The resulting mammoth-format views created a national sensation. Across the continent, at Harvard University, the naturalist Louis Agassiz wrote, "I have never seen photographs equal to these.... [They] are the best illustrations I know of the physical character of any country." Europe agreed; Watkins won a bronze medal for landscape photography at the Paris International Exposition of 1867, and the reviews quickly brought him transatlantic celebrity.

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Watkins worked all up and down the Pacific Coast and as far inland as Montana and Utah. Romantic about his artistic aspirations, he was conventionally utilitarian about economic development. In his photographs, mining, logging, and railroading are seen as constructive activities comfortably enclosed within an infinitely bountiful nature.

These harmonious views of the developing West are the subject of a traveling exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception" will be seen at the SFMOMA through Sept. 7; at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, from Oct. 11 through Jan. 9, 2000; and at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., from Feb. 6 through April 30, 2000.

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