It is a superb example of Watkins’ acclaimed work and depicts The Half Dome, a mountain in what is now Yosemite National Park, California. It was discovered during routine digitisation and is one of a group of four prints featuring rural American scenes bound into in an album of later photographs of Australia. Probably all four of the American photographs were taken by Watkins but definitive authentication of three of them is still to be confirmed.
Watkins is arguably the most celebrated American landscape photographer of the 19th century, a reputation earned primarily for the iconic views of the Yosemite Valley he so expertly framed and popularised. These staggeringly beautiful scenes, depicting an unspoiled and untamed rural idyll, are now credited with having been influential in helping constitute that idealised emotional bond so many Americans claim with their vaunted wild places. Indeed, it is understood that the images of Yosemite photographed by Watkins in the 1860s played an important role in persuading the US Congress to establish the valley as a National Park.
Watkins took his famous Yosemite views using a bespoke giant camera capable of holding 18×22 inch glass negative plates. He would lug the gargantuan camera, heavy plates and large quantities of the dangerous chemicals used for developing into some of the remotest parts of the American west in search of subjects. Despite the logistical impediments and the multitude of technical difficulties associated with early photography, Watkins succeeding in taking amazing photographs, known for their great composition and use of light.
The album in which the photographs were discovered is part of a large collection of early photographic work purchased in 1953 from Robert O. Dougan, then Deputy Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin.
(Blog post by Robert MacLean, Special Collections)
Categories: Special Collections