Carleton Watkins

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

I beg your pardon for using two consecutive weeks of LA Observed to talk, a least loosely, about art in Los Angeles.

Last week it was the financial mess at LA's Museum of Contemporary Art, and the chance that we could see the closure, or possibly the merger, of an important local institution.

This week is a happier observation, inspired by a visit last night to the Getty's exhibition of photographs by Carleton Watkins.

They're all from more than a century ago, in the very early days of photography. Watkins came to California to work with his childhood friend Collis Huntington, builder of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The pictures are so sharp and crisply composed that they seem to jump off the walls.

They show South America and other faraway places, but to me the most compelling images are the rare pictures of history close to home.

The Gold Rush in Northern California. San Francisco before the earthquake and fire of 1906. The old California missions.

Watkins captured some of the earliest photos of Yosemite's rock faces and big trees. They are simply beautiful, and inspired the later photographers such as Ansel Adams who made Yosemite so familiar to us.

For Watkins to reach Yosemite was a multi-day trip from San Francisco, through the mosquitoes and grizzly bears of the San Joaquin Valley and up the Mariposa Trail.

Hard miles -- especially when you see the camera that Watkins had custom built for himself.

It's bigger than a piece of furniture, made out of wood. It exposed the photographs on heavy glass plates almost two feet square that were covered in emulsion.

Everything had to be lugged up the trail by mule, although in later years Watkins had the use of a special rail car to ferry his equipment around California.

Watkins photographed the missions as a personal project, and caught his subjects at a revealing time. The missions were past their prime as the centers of rural and religious life in California, and before they were restored and romanticized into the easy-to-digest narratives of 19th century life we know today.

So we see Mission San Fernando Rey used as a rancher's hay barn, its historic adobe walls crumbling. Mission San Gabriel looks isolated in a field, seeming almost inconsequential.

Watkins lived in San Francisco society, but at least twice he traveled to Los Angeles and used his time here to record some of the most satisfying images that survive of that wild place.

One of the most absorbing photographs in the Getty exhibit shows the old Point Fermin lighthouse overlooking the Pacific. It sits by itself on a windswept bluff that could be on Cape Cod or the English coast, not in San Pedro.

One of my favorite Carleton Watkins images was left out of the exhibit, but you can see it in Judy Graeme's introduction to Watkins' work on the Native Intelligence blog at LA

It shows the Old Plaza at the center of Los Angeles in 1880, before the birthplace of LA was corralled by modern city streets, paved and re-invented as an entryway to the tourist stalls on Olvera Street.

You see a man and a boy standing in front of a little picket gate, with the old church across the plaza. It exudes how rugged and isolated LA was then, when only a few thousand people lived here, one of them the former Mexican governor Pio Pico.

Fort Moore Hill rises behind the church, a reminder of how much the topography of downtown has been altered in the last few generations as LA disguised its pueblo roots to prove its claims to the status of a world class city.

You can get acquainted with Carleton Watkins at the Getty until March, and if you love Los Angeles I recommend you do.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.

Banner image: The Plaza, Los Angeles, circa 1880 by Carleton Watkins / J. Paul Getty Museum