Of the major art museums in the United States, few could possibly be as big a pain in the butt to get to as the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Built on a mountainside over a screaming freeway, you plunge down the exit, circle around and under the freeway, pay the $10 parking fee, lose your car in a gargantuan underground garage (write the parking level on the palm of your hand, or you may never see your Camaro again) and then wait in a Disney World-style line for a tram that runs up and down the mountain. Slowly, up and down the mountain.
The latter part of this journey is accompanied by shoals of rugrats on school excursions who, upon inspection, seem to be learning nothing whatever about art, or anything else, while efficiently preventing any possibility of quiet contemplation of the museum’s paintings, prints and photographs. (Yes, I have not only children, but grandchildren, God bless them all, and keep the little ones out of the art museums until they’re at least eleven, is what I say; and for those twelve- to sixteen-year-old hormonal cases, a carefully chosen display of Helmut Newton prints should keep them occupied, quiet, and possibly even inspired.)
Over the years, I’ve been to the Getty a dozen times, and it never seems to get better. I wouldn’t even go, except for the glorious “Young Italian Woman at a Table,” by Paul Cezanne and an excellent sea painting (Van Tromp, Going About to Please His Masters, Ships a Sea, Getting a Good Wetting, by J.M.W. Turner, above), and a few others.
On Friday, I visited a dozen or so paintings and then went down in the basement to look at the “Dialogue Among Giants: Carleton Watkins and the Rise of Photography in California.” For lack of a better phrase, Watkins was a man-and-nature photographer working generally out of the San Francisco area from the 1850s through the 1890s.
Much to my amazement—and I can’t guarantee this was true—it seemed to me that the Watkins galleries were as crowded as the European painting galleries, possibly because the show was to end a couple of days later. As is the case with many photography shows, there were too many photographs on display, not all of them in pristine condition, well-printed, or well-photographed.
But that’s a quibble: they were fascinating. (And large: Watkins worked mostly with mammoth plates, up to 18x22 inches.)
Carleton Watkins, Primitive Mining. The Old Rocker (self-portrait as a miner), c. 1876.
Collection of the Society of California Pioneers, The National Gallery of Art
Watkins seems to have anticipated several strands of documentary photography, such as the early workman/industrial photography by Lewis Hine or August Sander, with his photos of lumberjacks and miners, taken on location, with their tools. The brutality of their labor is clearly written on their faces and in their bodies: you could throw Jacob Riis and the WPA photographers in the influence-mix, as well. Watkins even anticipated contemporary environmental photography, with his images of the tremendous damage done by hydraulic gold mining in the California mountains.
Most notably, though, he took pictures of the wilderness, and especially Yosemite. I knew that Yosemite had been extensively photographed before Ansel Adams, of course, but wasn’t aware to the extent that Watkins had anticipated all of Adams’ great themes—the high walls, the waterfalls, the serpentine rivers with the light playing across them.
Adams had better equipment, of course, and, I think, a better eye. Watkins (who worked first with daguerreotypes and later with glass plates, out of a darkroom built into a wagon) tended to go for an almost academic, or just simple, composition—the river leading into the distance, the carefully placed foreground/background items to define a scenic view, the high viewpoint looking across the deep valley. It seemed to me that he “went there and took the picture,” whatever the picture was when he got there.
Adams, on the other hand, apparently had an idea of what the photograph should look like, and then went back repeatedly to the same places, until nature cooperated and provided him with that image. The two approaches are quite different, probably because Adams was a trained and self-conscious artist, while Watkins was more akin to a reporter.
One especially interesting aspect of the show was a 360-degree panorama (I believe of San Francisco), by Eadweard Muybridge, who later became famous for his stop-action photos of horses and then human beings. The literature provided by the Getty suggests that Watkins was Muybridge’s mentor; and Watkins took a photograph of Muybridge seated beneath a Giant Redwood. Watkins also began shooting panoramas before Muybridge, and may have taught something of the technique to the younger man.
The Muybridge panorama especially caught my eye because it was an example of an early multiple (13 separately-framed shots) that seemed to anticipate his later multiple studies, which were done in time, rather than space—but you can see the idea forming on the wall. Muybridge’s biggest failing, of course, was that he had too many vowels in his first name.
The Watkins show is over, but if you’re in L.A. and want to go to the Getty, there’s no admission charge to the museum. However, parking is pretty much mandatory—Daniel Boone couldn’t walk into the place—and costs $10 per car.
Featured Comment by Daniel Jansenson: "Regarding parking: you can also take the Metro Rapid bus (line 761), for $1.25. More info here." [WARNING: link is a .PDF download. —Ed.]
Featured Comment by thompsonkirk: "On the theme of Watkins: Don't miss Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957 by Terry Toedtemeier (the late curator of photography at the Portland Art Museum) and John Laursen. Beautiful reproductions of Watkins' and later photographers' work in Oregon's Columbia Gorge."