Photography: Natural Wonder

A retrospective looks at Carleton Watkins, who helped invent the West

Carleton Watkins was one of those gifted but hapless figures whose life is a cautionary tale about the perils of becoming an artist. Eighty-three years after his death, and more than three decades after scholars hoisted his reputation back from the grave, he ranks among the greatest 19th century American photographers. Looking now at his pictures of Yosemite Valley or the Willamette River in Washington, it's plain how they helped create the 19th century notion of the Western landscape, so stately and sizable, as a geologic preamble to the American future, a stone tablet engraved by God. And given the high...

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