Student Spotlight: Charlotte Hull

Two Waterfalls: A Compare and Contrast Essay

Photograph of Lower Yosemite Falls by Carleton E. Watkins Carleton Watkins ca. 1861 Records of the National Park Service National Archives Identifier: 2581388

PH50A: History of Photography Pre-1945
By: Charlotte Hull

The latter half of the 19th century was ripe for photography. Westward expansion began in earnest, first with the discovery of gold in California in 1849 which lured such would be photographers as Carleton Watkins, followed by the conclusion of the American Civil War which freed soldiers like William Henry Jackson to continue other pursuits. With the culmination of the war Americans focused on growth and innovation during which point photography took its place as the medium that would promote a wilderness never before seen by the eyes of most Americans. Watkins and Jackson were both incredibly instrumental in capturing the frontiers of Western United States. Although their backgrounds and territories were distinct both men took great pride in producing what proved to be lasting images of some of the greatest untouched regions of America. Both photographers while they were committed to their craft had a fairly straight photographic style which produced beautiful but “true” representations of their subject matter. Their similar but distinctive photographic styles can be seen in a comparison of waterfalls from Yosemite and Yellowstone respectively. Carleton Watkins albumen print “Lower Yosemite Falls” taken in 1865 is for the purpose of exploring stylistics of these men an apt pairing to William Henry Jackson’s albumen print “Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park” of 1892.

Carleton Watkins born 1829 in Oneota New York moved to San Francisco in the early 1850’s with the surge of men seeking gold. After a chance encounter with a local daguerreotypist Watkins made photography his life’s work (SFMOMA). He opened his own studio in San Francisco and began an epic career as a landscape photographer. The body of Watkins‘ work including “Lower Yosemite Falls” was created in Yosemite Valley, an otherworldly and awe inspiring landscape. Working with Wet Plate Collodion negatives in the field Watkins produced detailed and tonally distinct albumen prints which show striking clarity.
“Lower Yosemite Falls” exemplifies Watkins straight but detailed and technically correct style. The striking nature of the print comes from the intense natural lighting as it fell dramatically over the rocky walls surrounding the fall. The high level of contrast between the geologic surfaces highlights the misty ethereal waterfall which in turn seems to draw the eye back to the forefront and the blurred streaming water in the lower right hand corner. Although the scope of the image is quite large, as Watkins was capturing a waterfall, the perspective from the camera, the discreet inclusion of the dark tree trunk in the upper left corner leaning inward, as well as the intense definition create a very intimate feeling as though the viewer has crept up on the secret workings of nature. “Impelled perhaps by the controversies then current among naturalists, including expedition leader Clarence King, regarding the relationship of religion to geology and evolution, Watkins’ images of rocks seem to emphasize their animate qualities” (Rosenblum 132). The image itself is not so much composed as discovered; it feels like Watkins turned a corner on the trail where the falls were suddenly revealed and it was in that spot that he set up his equipment and collected the image.

Jackson, William Henry, 1843-1942, photographer Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park

William Henry Jackson was also born in New York State fourteen years after Watkins. Unlike Watkins who stumbled across photography as an adult Jackson was introduced to the medium by his father who was enamored with the daguerreotype process (Jenkins). Following his participation in the American Civil War Jackson headed westward where he was commissioned to photograph the wonders of the Western United States by the Union Pacific Railroad and later worked extensively with geologist Dr. Ferdinand Hayden. “William Henry Jackson, employed for eight years on the western survey headed by geologist Ferdinand V. Haden, was in a privileged position to evolve from journeyman photographer to camera artist of stature” (Rosenblum 134). In 1892 while photographing Yellowstone National Park Jackson created his image “Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park” which like Watkins’ “Lower Yosemite Falls” was to be reproduced as an albumen print.

Jackson like Watkins was a straight documentary photographer who is equally well known for his images of the American West. Instead of Yosemite, Jackson spent a significant portion of his photographic career with the natural wonders present in Yellowstone National Park. “Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park” while similar in content and general style, is very different in tone and perspective than Watkins’ “Lower Yosemite Falls.” The first noticeable differences between the two images are the lack of definition and the point of view in Jackson’s image. Like Watkins, Jackson has photographed a great waterfall cascading from a formidable rock face which encompasses the vast majority of the frame. Jackson’s perspective, from a higher vantage point farther from the waterfall creates a feeling of open space both in distance and time that is not present in Watkins’ finite image. The slightly fuzzy nature of Jackson’s photograph does not hinder the effectiveness of the image because in conjunction with the expansiveness caused by the relation of photographer to the subject, the image seems almost sentimental. Jackson included the tree topped skyline and a small amount of the above sky which gives more perspective to the scene than that of “Lower Yosemite Falls” which with very little inclusion of elements outside of the waterfall and surrounding rock is far more intimate. While “Lower Yosemite Falls” is inclusive and secretive “Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park,’”equally pleasing, promotes a feeling of separateness and history; Watkins’ image could just as easily have been taken in modern times while Jackson’s work is clearly from a different era.
The images of these two men while of the same documentary survey style, captured with the same medium and taken of the same type of subject show very different results. Watkins’ more modern looking “Lower Yosemite Falls” is sharp and intimate while Jackson’s bygone feeling image “Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park” is soft and expansive. Both photographers succeeded in capturing the wonders of the respective wildernesses in images which sustain to this day but with aesthetically distinct results. Watkins and Jackson were two of many men that over the course of a lifetime produced magnificent likenesses of the wilderness they came to be enthralled by. “Beyond their roles as documenters, all were inspired by the spectacular scale and breadth of the pristine wilderness landscape, by its strange rock formations, its steamy geysers, and its sparkling waterfalls” (Rosenblum 144).
Works Cited
“Carleton E. Watkins.” SFMOMA. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, web. 19 Oct. 2012.
Jackson, William Henry. Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park. 1892. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC. Library of Congress. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. <>
Jenkins, Tom. “In the wilds of Colorado, frontier photographer William Henry Jackson sought the Cross of Snow.” Wild West vol. 14 (2001) issue 1: p22. MasterFile Premier. Web. 19 Oct. 2012.
Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. 4th ed. New York: Abbeville Press, Inc., 2008. Print.
Watkins, Carleton E. Lower Yosemite Falls. 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC. Library of Congress. Web. 19 Oct. 2012.
Watkins, Carleton E. Lower Yosemite Falls. 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC. Library of Congress. Web. 19 Oct. 2012.

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