Saturday, March 12, 2011

Treasure Hunting: Carleton E. Watkins




The other day on television I heard an antique dealer describing his job as treasure hunting and I thought, yes, that's exactly what it is... and why it is so compelling. And lo, my little piece of treasure....

For a long time I have been wondering what I'm going to do with a photo album I bought for a fiver. It's tatty and distressed and is full of Victorian albumen prints of the Swiss Lakes and the Scottish Highlands, perhaps the two least commercial subjects in Victorian photography. Added to that, the images are nearly all in a poor state with mildew and major fading making the majority of them nothing more than rubbish. There are perhaps two or three in the whole album worth saving and selling. So, as I flicked through it again the other day for the hundredth time trying to summon the energy to start work on extracting the one or two reasonable photos, I was suddenly aware, for the first time of a sheet of card slipped inside which was not, as I had first thought, a loose album page.

There was one photo attached to it, but only just, the glue had given up the ghost on all but one tiny corner of the image. So rolling it back I was able to read Yosemite and C. E. Watkins. Wow!

C. E. Watkins is one of the pioneers of early photography and THE major photographer of the American West. Yosemite wasn't a national park when he took his photos and it was thanks in no small part to Watkins's photos and his campaigning that it came to be so. He was convinced that artistically, it was better to represent the vast size of the American landscape by the biggest possible plates. Thus, he developed what have become known as Mammoth Plate Negatives, a huge camera was involved which he carried all over Yosemite along with his stereoscopic camera.

Sadly my photo isn't a Mammoth Plate print, those are something like 20" x 17". This is a more modest 12" x 8". However, had it been a Mammoth Plate print it would likely have gone to auction and fetched perhaps 15,000-25,000 GBP. A smaller, more mass produced Watkins photo such as a Cabinet Card or Stereoview might be expected to sell for about 150-200 GBP. So, although I couldn't easily find any auction records for single prints of this size I'm confident I'll be getting my fiver back on the album.

As ever with treasure hunting though there's always the one that got away. It's quite clear from the caption and patch of dried glue on the other side of the card that there was once a Watkins photo there too...!

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