With New Eyes

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Through the magic of videoconferencing technology we continue to hold discussions with educators across the country about how to creatively use the Carter’s artworks in their classrooms long after an exhibition has been removed from the galleries. This week the 2007 photography exhibition With New Eyes: Exploration and the American West inspired a professional development broadcast that served teachers from Brock to Cotulla. This program explored photographs of four nineteenth-century U.S. government surveys, and while the missions of these surveys and the resulting images are fascinating, what really intrigues me is that the images were even made in the first place.

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Most of the expedition photographers created albumen silver prints (like Carleton Watkins’ Commencement of the Whitney Glacier, Summit of Mt. Shasta above) using the wet plate collodion process. The glass plates had to be prepared, the plate exposed, and the image developed---all while the plate was still wet. Watch a contemporary photographer demonstrate the process, and think about how challenging it would have been for Watkins to create his Mt. Shasta image. In fact, Watkins---who was already a veteran of expeditions through California and acclaimed for his mammoth-plate photographs of Yosemite by the time he joined Clarence King’s U.S. Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel---prepared a special enclosed wagon as a mobile darkroom to augment his technical facility during the arduous trek. If the process alone wasn’t difficult enough, imagine for a moment carrying around all of your glass plate negatives and all of your photographic supplies over rough, rocky terrain.

Sometimes you can even see evidence of the process in the finished prints. Look closely at Watkins’ The Shasta Buttes below. The hazy gap in the center of the photograph is the product of an uneven application of collodion.

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The next time you take a picture on your digital camera or cell phone, tip your hat to those nineteenth-century photographers who needed more than a split second to compose their awe-inspiring views!

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