We all think of sitting in our living rooms watching the "idiot box" as something of a twentieth century phenomena. Well, guess what? It's not. Americans in the last quarter of the nineteenth century could do it too. In fact, they had a certain advantage over our high-tech electronic contraptions. They could view their "shows" in 3-D! Granted, there was no color, and no sound, and no brilliant illumination, but they could peer into an attractive, two-foot-tall wooden cabinet and turn a knob on the side and view a surprisingly realistic "movie" of San Francisco Bay or Yosemite right from their Victorian parlors. It was closer to a modern-day Rolodex than television, or even the movies, but it was surprisingly advanced for it's time. They could choose from eighteen different models averaging about $23 in price (the equivalent of several hundred dollors today). And it was all the brainchild of the pioneering photographer, Carleton Watkins.
Carleton Watkins was born in 1829. Photography hadn't even been INVENTED yet. He got his start in San Francisco in 1853 as an assistant in a portrait photo shop. When we think of landscape photography, especially that of Yosemite, we think first of Ansel Adams. Watkins was taking outstanding, large-scale photos of Yosemite long before Adams was even born. In fact, some of the equipment he used, he found he had to invent himself. This includes the stereographic camera used to create the 3-D photos which amazed and delighted Victorian armchair travelers. Dissatisfied with the quality of photos from existing box cameras of the Civil War era, he had a cabinet maker build an enormous piece of equipment capable of handling wet glass Collodion plates as large as 18 by 22 inches.
It wasn't easy. The camera and glass plates (four pounds each) weighted hundreds of pounds. Moreover, the photos had to be shot and developed while the plates remained wet, which usually meant within a time span of no more than a half-hour to forty-five minutes. For the would-be landscape photographer, this entailed the carrying with him his own portable darkroom to some of the most remote but beautiful places on earth. The gear was so heavy and bulky and fragile it would fill a railroad boxcar, which is exactly what Watkins used. But in the latter part of the nineteenth century, with railroads probing even the most inaccessible corners of the country, this was no problem. He even got the railroads to support his efforts. Today, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, you can see his art. You can even peer into his Victorian motion picture viewer and see why someone decided television (even without 3-D effects) would be a marked improvement. The show is called "Carleton Watkins--The Art of Perception" and runs through May 27, 2000.