From Craig Carlson:
Exhibit Review For The Journal of San Diego History
One of the great pleasures of being a large format photographer is to view your subject on a large ground glass. Even though the image is upside down and backwards to the eye, the photographer now sees the world as a cathedral of light and shadow — he experiences the creative moment with both eyes wide open.
The 100th anniversary of the National Park System is being celebrated by the Museum of Photographic Arts with a small group of images made by photographers who pointed their large format cameras first at our American cathedrals. The handful of photographs represented in the exhibit is a history lesson of photography‘s pioneers of the Western landscape and native peoples.
These early explorers of our soon-to-be national parks, were not only drawn by unexplored wilderness but also by the possibility of imaging a subject few had seen and fewer had access to. Our National Parks System stands today as one of the greatest gifts that our republic has bequeathed to its citizens and has held in trust for generations to come. Our National Parks System, where we take our children to visit and can teach them the necessity of the wilderness, balances precariously between access and preservation.
Carleton Watkins came to the California gold fields in 1851. After a series of jobs he became an assistant to a San Francisco daguerreotypist where he learned the arts of being a photographer. In 1861, Watkins did find gold of a different type when he began to photograph Yosemite Valley with a mammoth 18×22-inch glass plate view camera. These large format photographs hold incredible detail and tonal range and were seen by senators and congressmen. These Yosemite photographs led president Abraham Lincoln to sign a bill in 1864 to ensure that Yosemite Valley would never be broken, infringed or dishonored, thus paving the way for our National Park System.
Another explorer and photographer of the West with a print in the exhibit is John K. Hillers. Hillers came to America in 1852 and worked first as a policeman and then a soldier during the American Civil War. After the war he re-enlisted and served in the Western garrisons until 1870. While working as a teamster in Salt Lake City, he met John Wesley Powell who had explored the Green and Colorado rivers. In 1871 Powell retraced his exploration, but this time used Hillers as the expedition photographer resulting in views of the two rivers.
Hillers‘s introduction to the West as a photographer began a career of documenting the cultures of the Navajo, Zuni & Paiute tribes. He was especially talented in posing Native Americans in their tribal clothing and supportive artifacts like pottery, blankets and rifles. When studying a larger collection of his sunlit exterior-made portraits, they take on a surreal quality as if made for a 20th century fashion magazine.
A few of Carleton Watkin’s and John K. Hiller’s large format photographs are now on view until December 31, 2016, in the exhibit, “America‘s Cathedrals, Photography and the National Parks,” at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, San Diego, California.