Carleton Watkins: An 1888 Kern County Portfolio

by Gerald Haslam
from The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland

Nearly fifteen feet above the plain, a gray-bearded artist seemed to pose atop his wagon's roof as he carefully uncapped then recapped the lens of a large camera. Carleton Watkins, identified by the local newspaper as "the eminent photographer of San Francisco," worked in the relative coolness of a July morning in 1888--by afternoon temperatures would soar well over 100 degrees--while in front of him a crew cast long shadows across an expanse of alfalfa.

In November of that year, this notice appeared in the Kern County Californian:

Nearly one thousand splendid photographic views of all the principle places of interest in Kern county (sic) can be had at the Stationery Store of A.C. Maude, Bakersfield, at the small price of fifty cents each, considerable less than the actual cost. A few of these pictures sent to your friends will tell them more of the beauties and resources of this country than can be written. They are all bound in albums for convenience of inspection.

Carleton Watkins was indeed "eminent" by 1888, and had been since his 1861 landscapes of Yosemite made him one of the West's best known photographers. He was also a friend of land mogul James Ben Ali Haggin and had, in 1881, become embroiled in the famous Lux v. Haggin case that created the "California Doctrine" of water rights. Watkins not only took photographs of his friend's Kern River dam and various irrigation channels employing a huge 14 x 21 inch camera--but he also found himself on the witness-stand enduring a hostile cross-examination.

Little wonder, then, when Haggin and his partner Lloyd Tevis--who would two years later incorporate as Kern County Land Company decided to sell vast tracts of land southwest of Bakersfield, they commissioned Watkins to create images to aid promotion. Create he did, lugging his 8 x 10 inch camera over that desiccated realm, and over 700 photographs have so far been found. Although Haggin and Tevis wanted straight-forward promotional scenes, they got much more, what Richard Steven Street calls "unique historical documents that evoke the texture of rural life almost a century ago."

Whatever his commission, Watkins remained a careful worker whose artistic vision did not desert him. Street says he averaged "about twenty-four photographs each day. Normally, he photographed between three and six scenes at each site before moving on." And biographer Peter Palmquist points out that the photographer always approached his subjects with an eye for composition, for texture, and for the impact of humans on the landscape.

Haggin and Tevis published booklets and brochures illustrated with Watkins' photos, material designed to lure land buyers with assurances that--according to one publication-- Kern County "does not partake of the wild and woolly west." In fact, Kern County did partake of it, but that wasn't the image promoters desired.

In 1893, prints by Watkins were exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair. Others were disseminated as engravings--sometimes altered and sometimes omitting credit to Watkins. In an 1893 issue of Traveler, five photographs by Watkins appeared along with text that said, in part,

It is safe to say that no other portion of the Coast outside of this offers equal inducements to the home builder. The buyer may rest assured that he gets what he buys, and he buys from the first hands; he should expect, and will certainly receive (if he deserves it), good, fair treatment from the hands of Kern County Land Company .

The campaign, which coincided with a dramatic fall in the cost of rail fares from the East, was successful. Prospective buyers were feted at barbecues and escorted over the area.

The Kern County photographs by Carleton Watkins were for all practical purposes lost for many years. During the 19305 415 of his south Valley photographs were given to the Library of Congress, and other smaller collections were located at the Huntington Library, the Kern County Museum, and the Beale Memorial Library in Bakersfieid, Much the largest collection of Watkins' work--some 700 images entitled Photographic Views of Kern County, California--from the archive of the Kern County Land Company is owned by Tenneco West, which absorbed Kern County Land Company in 1976. They constitute an extraordinary document of the agrarian vision that built a garden in a desert and of one artist's ability to capture what we wished the land to be.

--Source. Richard Steven Street, "A Kern County Diary"
California History

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