Carleton Watkins & Art of Perception


I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a show called Napolean III and Paris. I was lured in by images by Charles Marville (1816-1879). A designer had mentioned Marville to me, but I never knew of his architectural photographs and street scenes of Paris in the late 1800’s. I certainly knew about Atget (1857-1927) who worked a generation or so after. But nothing about Marville.

In any event, I did not really see enough of Marville ‘s work at this show to get a solid impression. But what I did see brought to mind another show at the MET from 1999 featuring the work of American born Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), a photographer based in San Francisco around the same time Marville was working in Paris.

The Watkin’s show and accompanying book was called The Art of Perception. The title itself struck me at the time. Photography could be about the art of seeing and perceiving. It’s spot on, and elevates his imagery beyond merely banal landscapes, and work that many today would be happy to dismiss in a heartbeat.

Mixed in among Watkin’s lifelong commissioned work for mine landowners and explorers of the West are many images of incredible visual sophistication and intelligence - an “acute spacial intelligence” - the book essay describes.

It’s even more remarkable when you consider the time in which these images were made. I like how he leads your eye into the frame with objects in the foreground, then takes you all around the picture ending up at the very distant horizon. What a sense of depth. Watkin's had an amazing eye.