Yosemite celebrates the 150th anniversary of the law designed to protect its natural beauty—a beauty captured skillfully through the lens of a rugged frontier photographer.
150 years ago today, the national parks system was effectively inaugurated with the Yosemite Grant Act. Signed by Lincoln in the midst of the civil war, this far-sighted legislation was the first-ever law to expressly prohibit private development of wild land; the first-ever law to acknowledge that the sublime of the American landscape was not solely an inheritance, but a responsibility.
Instrumental in the passing of this law were a series of photographs by an intrepid frontiersman named
Carleton Watkins. Leading mules laden with camera equipment and noxious chemicals up steep rocky promontories and across sprawling valleys, Watkins documented the natural splendor of Yosemite. What he captured through his lens was submitted to Congress as testimony of the land’s untrammeled beauty and contributed to the cultural pressure on Congress to preserve the land for public use in 1864.
At the time of Watkins’ career, photography as a medium was nearly as untrodden as the Western frontier that was his subject. In today’s world of point-and-shoot and instantaneous preview screens, it baffles the mind to imagine Watkins hauling his cumbersome equipment over crags and streams, propping up makeshift darkrooms as he traveled, and using the force of natural sunlight to filter his negatives into final photographs.
In order to obtain such sharp images, Watkins fashioned his own mammoth-plate camera—weighing in at seventy-five pounds—that produced enormous negatives, roughly the equivalent to a medium-sized wide screen TV (eighteen by twenty-two inches). According to George Philip LeBourdais, a doctoral candidate in art history, “the resolution of an analog, chemical negative of this size still eclipses the highest-end professional digital cameras today.”
It was by this arduous process that Watkins produced images of Yosemite of unsurpassed quality and detail. Sheer cliffs, gargantuan Sequoias, misty waterfalls, and shimmering pools casting crystalline reflections predominate in the Yosemite photos. Watkins’ intuitive sense of depth and perspective, of line and form, and utter awe-factor not only earned him an enduring reputation as one of the most influential and visionary photographers of the 19th century—it also helped to cement a precedent for conservationism, and a legacy for environmental
stewardship in the United States.