Business, art, and the American West

Early photographs by Carlton Watkins

Carleton E. Watkins, Eagle Creek, Columbia River, 1867, albumen silver print, 40.01 × 52.39 cm (LACMA). Speakers: Elizabeth Gerber, LACMA and Dr. Beth Harris

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Watkins, Eagle Creek

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Key points

  • As industry and tourism expanded westward, photography became an important documentary tool for strategic planning and advertising, particularly for people who remained in the eastern United States. With the Transcontinental Railroad nearly complete, planning had begun on northern and southern routes across the country, and photographs like Eagle Creek, Columbia River were important for understanding the local geography and possible business opportunities. They also stoked popular imagination about the western territories.
  • To capture the expansive terrain of the wilderness and also preserve precise detail, Carleton Watkins invented the mammoth camera, which recorded images on large glass plates. This process yielded crisp, clear photographs, but also required the photographer to navigate the countryside while carrying delicate and heavy equipment.
  • This image was commissioned by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company to inform their business decisions, but Carleton Watkins made similar photographs that would be sold to the general public in galleries. Still, photography was not widely considered fine art until the early decades of the twentieth century.

Go deeper

See this photograph at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Tyler Green, Carleton Watkins: Making the West American (University of California Press, 2018)

See more about Carleton Watkins at Google Art & Culture Project 

Zoom in and explore the details of Watkins’s photograph

See digitized images of Watkins’ photographs (1861-1885) at the Oregon Historical Society

Learn more about how photographs like Watkins’  Eagle Creek, Columbia River were made in the mid-19th century from the George Eastman House

Learn more about Carleton Watkins

See some of the documents that informed the industrialization of the west and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad

Learn more about the history of the Columbia River

More to think about

This photograph was commissioned by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company to inform their planned work along the Columbia River. Using one of the high resolution images available, look at the types of information that Carleton Watkins is careful to include in this one picture. How do you think these details might have been used by the company? What do we learn about this region?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.