Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs costs $195, it is heavy as a turkey, and you probably won't buy it. But compared to, say, Phaidon's gimmicky The Art Museum, which is also 200 clams and currently riding holiday art-books lists, Carleton Watkins is a staunchly great book. Do this: Download a flashlight app onto your phone, locate a copy of this tome in some library or bookstore, then set yourself up in as dark a corner as you can find and start shining—because this book feels like detective work.
In the history of photography, there's really nobody like Carleton Watkins (1829–1916). He's the bridge between daguerreotypes—those early photographs, usually images of stunned and stiff and sometimes dead family members that look burned onto the shiny/tiny surface, as if they lost part of themselves in the alchemical process—and the onslaught of romantic pictorialism. He's a Westerner, a man who died penniless, and a prolific imagemaker who lived on the quintessential photographic line between art and documentation; he was often, especially early on, a forensics witness for hire. The book tells stories of his images failing to convince a judge on a land claim, or him being called to create images that would testify on both sides of a dispute, which led him to the clever, if conflicted, solution of creating panoramas. Still, Watkins, and photography, were pawns as much as they were power-makers. (It's said that Watkins's photographs of Yosemite were shown to Abraham Lincoln by a senator, motivating the president to establish the national park.)
The new book by Getty Publications includes more than a thousand of Watkins's mammoth photographs, only 300 of which have been previously exhibited or published. (They were found by scouring from coast to coast.) Watkins switched to the mammoth camera—meaning the plate was up to 18 by 22 inches; before that, plates were only about 6 by 8 inches—in 1861. Nobody really knows exactly where he got the machine itself, but it was an infernal pain in the ass to lug around. He and a team of mules dragged 2,000 pounds of gear into Yosemite to shoot.
There's really nothing coffee-table about this book. It's more archive than aesthetic luxury item. The mammoth photographs are (amusingly) printed small, each one the size of your palm (with some blown-up details). But the details are alive in there. Take your flashlight and lean in: into the gilded sitting rooms of California financiers, towns set on the sides of mining hills, rock peaks that ghost up gradually, merging into fogged skies, beautiful industrial steam that's also poisonous, the white-picket-fenced grave of a quicksilver-works superintendent, the vaginal canal of the rock formation of Devils Slide in Utah (with a phallic train sliding by in the foreground), black trains in the snow, water in forms ranging from powdery vapor to mirrored surface, ruined California missions, the rises of Portland/Tacoma/Seattle, a shipwreck, a "temperance fountain" erected by a man who believed water fountains would decrease liquor swilling. Get a glass of something yourself and settle in; there is no end to what you might find in there.