A return to Round Top

Announcing my forthcoming book about Carleton Watkins and how an artist made the West American

By Tyler Green


I want to tell you a story about my childhood.

It was 1983, but it could be the next year or the year after that. I was nine years old. It was a sunny August morning and my family was in a dirt parking area in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. The trailhead for the three-mile trek to my favorite mountain lake was in the back of the lot. We took lots of hikes in the Sierra, but this hike, to Winnemucca Lake, was my favorite.

My little brother and I were the first two out of the car. We raced to the beginning of the trail. My mother and father followed, then my grandparents, my mother’s mother and her husband (whom I later learned was Mom’s step-father). I called them Mela and Bapa because when I was a barely old enough to talk, my parents asked me to say grandma and grandpa. It came out Mela and Bapa.

My mother’s family had been coming to this part of the Sierra Nevada for many years before I was born. It was Mom’s favorite place. I remember Silver Lake, where we rented a cabin each year; Thunder Mountain, which sat at one end of Silver Lake, squat and monumental; and hiking destinations such as Emigrant and Granite Lakes. I remember looking for animal tracks in the mud, and the way the granite in the area was so blindingly white that the ground glowed. As I’ve written about once before, Mom loved to take her watercolors out into the nearby expanses of granite and paint. I would follow, looking for marmots, marveling at the enormous boulders littered across the landscape, and trying to figure out why the bark of the tall, straight Jeffrey pines smelled like vanilla, and why other pines were twisted, weathered and smelled like nothing. Mom was busy painting, so I never asked. This was when and where and with whom I learned to love the land. Back to the hike.

From the parking lot, the trail to Winnemucca climbed steeply through a rough-on-rough, sand-on-granite section of trail. We hoisted ourselves onto rocks that served as steps, and then helped my grandparents up them. I recently looked at a map of the hike and realized that this half-mile, from the trailhead to Frog Lake, rises no more than 200 feet. I guess nine-year-old me had a different understanding of “steep.” I guess that’s why it was a hike that we kids could do, and that our grandparents could too.

After pausing so I could skip some stones on Frog Lake, we turned to the right and into a broad meadow. On the right, the mountain grasses fall away for a few miles before reaching Caples Lake. Mom always noticed the wildflowers. To the left of the trail a rounded mound of solidified lava rose 1,000 feet above us. It is called Elephant’s Back. I always wanted to climb it; I never did.

Carleton Watkins, Winnemucca Lake and Round Top Mountain, Alpine County, Calif., 1879. Collection of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

We hiked for another mile or two, to the base of a steep, craggy mountain crowned by an lump of brown volcanic rock. At the base of this mountain is Winnemucca, a classic Alpine lake. Winnemucca is beautiful. Round Top, as this mountain has been known for 150 years, is more impressive than pretty.

Most of the time we hiked only as far as the lake. My family didn’t believe in carrying water on hikes, so we would sit and eat grapes, lots of grapes. Sometimes my mother packed homemade cookies too. Once or twice we continued on past the lake, onto Round Top’s steep slopes, up to the snowfields that spotted the 10,381-foot pile even in July or August. I knew that I was not allowed to throw snowballs at my parents, and most certainly not at my grandparents, but my brother made an excellent target.

We never hiked to the summit of Round Top. Nine-year-old me believed that I could make it with ease, but I don’t know that my little brother or my grandparents could have. (Then again, the beginning of the hike was steep.)

I haven’t been back to Winnemucca since I was 11. Mom died the next year, and that was that. I didn’t even think about Winnemucca for many years thereafter. When you lose a parent when you’re a kid, it’s easier to push forward than it is to revisit the past. Or to think about what might have been.

I next saw Round Top in 2000, by accident. That year a Carleton Watkins retrospective organized by Douglas Nickel for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art before arriving at the National Gallery, a few miles from my Washington home. I knew Watkins. Of course I knew Watkins: He is familiar to San Francisco the way Stieglitz or Pollock is familiar to New York, a local hero whose work was of national importance, a man who stood as reference to an entire era in the history of a place. His pictures of the mountains, of San Francisco, Mendocino, Yosemite, the Columbia River Gorge, Utah, the Monterey Peninsula, and lots of other places in the West were pretty much always on view in Bay Area museums, totems of the early American West. His pictures, often uncredited, pop up all over the West, in displays at historic sites, in book after book, in magazines. While writing this book, I’d often find myself talking with artists about Watkins’s work. Despite a splashy, big-museum 1999–2000 retrospective, sometimes they wouldn’t know it by name — but as soon as I’d show them an image they’d recognize the picture, and many others, and acknowledge them as influences.

My father visited me while the show was up in Washington. We went. A Watkins picture of Round Top was on one of the walls. The childhood I hadn’t allowed myself to think about came rushing back.

Carleton Watkins, View from Round Top. Cloud scene looking east from Azimuth. Vertical wall just west of Azimuth in foreground. Blue Lakes on right., 1879. Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Ever since, I’ve looked at as much Watkins as I could. At Winnemucca and Round Top, Watkins took 25 mammoth-plate pictures. He took one of them from almost the exact spot where we ate all those grapes. Others, such as the picture above this paragraph, are from the summit I never made. It looks east from Round Top at a series of distant peaks. How did Watkins get hundreds or even thousands of pounds of 19th-century photography gear up to Round Top? How did he make a rugged mountain wilderness look so organized, as if it was topographically ordered for his pictures? This one is at Yale. Since I saw it there a year or two ago, I have thought of it as a metaphor: The peak I never summited, the view I never saw, how great things might have been, if only.

Since the early 2000s, my art criticism has focused on how artists have been engaged with (and sometimes even impacted) their national stories. Over the last 15 years I have begun to understand not just how great an artist Watkins was, but the impact he had on America’s national story.

Carleton Watkins, View from Mt. Josephine, looking North, Las Mariposas, 1860.Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Watkins saw the strange, newest American place, the West, differently than everyone else. In his first commission, at John C. and Jessie Benton Fremont’s Las Mariposas estate in 1860, Watkins made pictures that presented the West’s most famous gold mine as a beautiful landscape. Today we take California’s beauty for granted, but in the 1850s, Californians and Easterners alike almost universally considered California as a place whose resources should be exploited rather than contemplated. In letters home, newspaper dispatches and even pictures, the men and women who experienced the California landscape routinely failed to find anything visually attractive about it. Instead, they saw a land that could be used to enrich — and that was it. The first photographer to take widely seen pictures of California mining was a man named Charles Leander Weed. His pictures so thoroughly excluded the landscape from man’s triumph over it that he cut the tops off of the mountains that surrounded his miners. Watkins celebrated the summits. He used their beauty as a metaphor for potential, wealth.

Jessie Benton Fremont showed Watkins’s Las Mariposas pictures to Thomas Starr King, the Jessie-besotted, Boston-born Unitarian preacher who had brought nature-valuing Emersonian Transcendentalism to the West. She also included Watkins in the political and cultural salon she held at her San Francisco home, Black Point. Suddenly Watkins, a 31-year-old who until recently had been nothing more significant than a retail clerk in a friend’s paper-goods store, found himself caught up in the Benton-Fremont-fueled furnace that forged the Republican Unionism that transformed California, then a Democratic, secession-minded state.

Informed and motivated by Starr’s 1860 visit to Yosemite, Watkins went there himself in the summer of 1861. When Watkins’s 32 pictures of Yosemite and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove arrived in New York and Boston in 1862, they were received with awe by artists, scientists and war-weary Easterners. In 1864, those pictures would motivate Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to set aside a parcel of land for the long-term enjoyment of the public, an idea that would become protected public lands, what we now call ‘national parks.’

Carleton Watkins, El Capitan, 1861. Collection of Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Yosemite and Watkins made each other. They cemented California’s participation in the Union and ensured that the West would forever be a key part of the re-born nation. For the next 30 years and like no other 19th-century Westerner, Watkins joined the remote, mining-satellite West with the dominant East, with its art, its science, its business, its public policy, and more. During the decades when America, including Westerners, were interested in Western lands for their extractive potential and not much else, Watkins’s work repeatedly, insistently urged America to see not just ore and timber, but new species of trees, a new topography, glaciers, agricultural potential, and more. In so doing, Watkins substantially invented an idea that we now take for granted, that the Western landscape is awesome enough to care about. His art covers an uncommon range.

Those are some of the historical reasons Watkins’s art fascinates me. But when we look at art, we don’t just look at a rectangle of colored mud on cloth, or at the way light and chemicals reacted on a piece of paper. We look at Titian’s Danaë and remember a woman who waited for us in bed. A Manet still-life recalls the way an oyster’s brininess dances on the tip of our tongue. The artworks we carry with us every day are the ones that are both historically important and somehow personal.

In Watkins I don’t find only the greatest picture-maker of his age, I find connections to my life. I remember Round Top and Winnemucca. I see the granite that my mother loved so much that my father nicknamed her Janet Granite. I remember visiting the mission in Carmel (below) with my family. When I see Watkins’s pictures of the Darius O. Mills estate, one of the enormous, opulent Peninsula ranches built by some of America’s wealthiest men, I think of my grandmother’s house in Burlingame’s Ray Park neighborhood. Built during the post-World War II suburban building boom, it was on land that was once part of Mills’s estate.

Carleton Watkins, Mission San Carlos del Carmelo, 1878. Collection of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

I think of my high-school best-friend Ben Mitchell. Ben is the great-great-great-grandson of James Reed, who co-organized the infamous Donner-Reed Party, an 1846–47 migration to California that ended in scores of deaths and even cannibalism. Watkins, who knew that Californians were fascinated by all things Donner, took many pictures of the lake near which half of the Donner Party died.

Carleton Watkins, The Carmel Valley, Monterey County, Calif. (left side of a two-part panorama), ca. 1882. Collection of the Hispanic Society of America, New York.

When I think of Ben, I remember that we went to the same small high school as Patty Hearst, the great-granddaughter of mining baron George Hearst and his philanthropist wife Phoebe. Watkins made his last pictures for them. (Before Phoebe’s son William Randolph because famous, Phoebe co-founded Washington D.C.’s National Cathedral School, which is a few blocks from my home in Cleveland Park.) Back in California, my high school was once the home of Templeton Crocker, the son of Charles Crocker. Watkins photographed Charles’s Del Monte Hotel and the surrounding Monterey Peninsula. Charles is known not so much for the still-magnificent Del Monte, but as one the Big Four who built the transcontinental railroad. One of his business partners was Collis P. Huntington, who traveled to gold rush-era California from Oneonta, New York with, you guessed it, his friend Carleton Watkins. California’s history folds into itself.

I don’t know how much Mom knew about Carleton Watkins. Probably not a lot: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, historians were only beginning to re-assemble Watkins’s oeuvre. That doesn’t really matter: I know about and love art because Mom was a painter. I remember that my father wanted me to learn how to play the piano and I didn’t want to. He’d make me sit on the piano bench, but mostly I’d turn around and look at mom’s bookcase of art books. I know about mountains and how varied and wonderful and special they are because Mom took us there. Today the two things I love most are art and being in mountains.

This is all a long way toward announcing, and I guess explaining, that I’m writing a biography of Carleton Watkins. The book will historicize Watkins less within the story of photography than within a larger 19th-century narrative that includes art, America’s westward migration, the emergence of the West and Westerners as contributors to American cultural and intellectual output, our often contradictory embrace of science, industry, and conservation, and especially Waktins’ contributions to the joining of California and the West to the rest of America. More than any other single 19th-century Westerner, Watkins helped make the West a part of the United States. I hope the book will further our understanding of not just Watkins’s greatness as an artist, but that it will show how important he was to the nation. It will be published by University of California Press in 2018.

My agent agreed to terms with UC Press several weeks ago, and for months before that I’ve been researching and writing grant proposals. Still, none of this sank in until 10 days ago, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced this exhibition of 36 Yosemite pictures mostly taken from albums of Watkins’s work at the Stanford University Libraries.

In the amount of time it took to read the Met’s press release, I realized that I am doing something I’ve always wanted to do, but that I will never do the part of it that would have meant the most to me. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, but we also tell other people’s stories so that in some small way, they might too.

Tyler Green is the producer and host of The Modern Art Notes Podcast. From 2001–2014 he edited the website Modern Art Notes. In 2014, the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-USA) awarded Green and Modern Art Notes one of its two inaugural awards for art criticism. The award included a citation for The MAN Podcast.