My essay on the history and role of photography and painting at Yosemite, published in American Art Review.

Carleton Watkins, Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite, 1865, courtesy of the Library of Congress.


When Carleton Watkins exhibited his photographs of Yosemite in New York City in 1862, he could hardly have guessed at the show’s artistic and political repercussions.

“As specimens of photographic art they are unequaled,” wrote a New York Times critic of the exhibit. “Nothing in the way of landscapes can be more impressive.” With his mammoth camera and 18 x 22-inch glass-plate negatives, Watkins had virtually invented Western landscape photography. Soon, the dramatic images served to inspire other artists, notably Albert Bierstadt, a member of the Hudson Valley School who subsequently and successfully sought his painterly fortunes in the West. But with his exhibit at New York’s Goupil Gallery, Watkins did much more than lay down a new marker for landscape photography. For many Americans, east and west, his photographs helped transform Yosemite into a place of legend that endures to this day. He made a landscape, now one of the most painted and photographed landscapes in the world, into a story.

This landscape-as-narrative theme is explored in a new exhibition and enhanced eBook, Yosemite: A Storied Landscape, which celebrates Yosemite’s 150th anniversary as a park. The exhibition opened at the California Historical Society in San Francisco on June 29 and will continue through January 25 of next year. The associated eBook, published by 36 Views on iBooks, further explores new narrative territory—enhancing the storytelling with animations, videos, and other interactive features, along with essays by Kenneth Brower, Susan Landauer, and Rebecca Solnit. Painters Alfred Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, William Keith and especially watercolorist Chiura Obata, as well as photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins, are well represented, and their work placed in historical context.

Watkins’ New York debut directly followed Mathew Brady Gallery’s showing of photographs of the dead at the Battle of Antietam by Alexander Gardner. The gruesome images fascinated and horrified New Yorkers, who lined up to see them, while Watkins photographs, though nearly as popular, naturally had a more soothing effect. Less than two years later, when a Civil War-weary Congress considered legislation to protect Yosemite, Watkins’ pictures lent support to the law’s passage. California Senator John Conness introduced the legislation in the spring of 1864, just as Congress had emerged from a bruising battle to end slavery. It was the right moment. The Yosemite Grant, the first act of the federal government to protect scenic landscapes, sailed through both houses with little discussion and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on June 30, 1864.

Even earlier, Yosemite had been championed by leading voices as a healing symbol for America. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and Thomas Starr King of Boston Evening Transcript had extolled the ennobling virtues of Yosemite’s grandeur in contrast to the sectional political strife that drove the nation to civil war. In the last year of the war, Frederick Law Olmsted argued in a report to the Yosemite Commission that “contemplation of natural scenery” promotes the “health and vigor” of the mind and body, echoing the idea of Yosemite as a place for America’s wounded psyche to heal.

Yosemite’s beauty seemed to confer the sense of divine grace that Lincoln had appealed to in the Second Inaugural. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds” the President had urged. The religiously inflected paintings by Alfred Bierstadt, one of the first artists to visit Yosemite, invoked this redemptive theme. When he reached the Valley in 1863 after a long journey by train, stagecoach, and horseback, it struck him with the force of revelation. He wrote his friend John Hay that he had found the “Garden of Eden,” and made over 25 paintings there, including On the Merced. Dramatically lit and devoid of people, it draws the viewer’s eye past towering cliffs into the depths of the Valley, which appears as a majestic and untouched natural paradise.

Likewise, Thomas Hill was described by a critic as “the most ardent devotee at the shrine of Yosemite and the most faithful priest of the Valley.”  His intimately scaled Yosemite Valley depicts tiny Native American figures, and their dog, paused below a waterfall that rushes forcefully enough to place a hush over the scene. Hill, whose work grew popular with wealthy patrons, often included Native Americans in his Yosemite paintings to provide a focal point and human interest without the trappings of modernity. In this way, Yosemite could continue to exist as a place of romantic wilderness, before the natives were displaced and the land became crowded with tourists.

As we now know, Hill’s idealistic view of Yosemite Indians obscured the more brutal reality of forcible removal and discrimination against the Ahwahneechee who inhabited the Valley. Yosemite: A Storied Land strives to recover that history through multiple stories in the exhibition and eBook. In one, the granddaughter of Chief Tenaya recalls decades later seeing her people sifting through piles of ashes to find edible acorns. The Mariposa Battalion, a state militia sent in 1851 to forcibly remove the tribe to a reservation on the Fresno River, had burned their winter food cache.


BY THE LATE 1800s, scientists were already challenging the view of Yosemite as the timeless creation of a divine Being. Evidence was piling up of dramatic changes over time in the geology, flora, and fauna. In her essay for Yosemite: A Storied Landscape, Rebecca Solnit evokes the ensuing Victorian-age crisis in meaning brought on by evolutionary theory, illuminating the Darwinian challenge by recounting botanist Asa Gray’s visit to Yosemite in July 1872, with John Muir as his guide:

At sixty-two, Asa Gray was tall, serious, with a square, honest face and a rapid gait that more nearly matched Muir's own than most of the people he guided. Professor of botany at Harvard, he had become a confidante of Darwin's long before On the Origin of Species was published and, afterwards, a defender of the man and his theory… During his week with Muir, Gray went to look at sequoias, either the Tuolumne Grove near Yosemite Valley or the more spectacular Mariposa Grove about twenty-five miles south of the Valley… Gray plunged into [the giant trees’] deep past to show that sequoias were remnants of a dwindled family of trees, a family whose fossils showed they had once been widespread, and their closest living relatives were in Asia. The sequoias became further evidence of evolution, of the transformation of species and their migration around the world.

By the 1870s, Muir, the natural historian, amateur geologist, and tireless advocate for federal protection of Yosemite, had accepted the Darwinian view of a changeable world. He understood this view displaced the conventional one of a divine author—with some delight, Solnit writes, “because his pantheistic spirituality was far removed from church religion, most emphatically from the harsh Presbyterianism of his father.” Muir, she says, “embraced with enthusiasm the far vaster world with its own internal forces and purposes that science and Darwinian theory revealed,” and found evidence of a holy presence in the beauty and pattern of these natural forces.

According to Solnit, a similar outlook is reflected in the work of the next great landscape photographer of the West, Eadweard Muybridge. As opposed to Watkins more serene compositions, Muybridge’s pictures “are sometimes terrifying: many were taken from the edge of precipices, and they play up the violence, the emptiness, the vastness, and the force in this landscape—they are sublime rather than beautiful.” His photographs, she says, “look like the nineteenth century landscape without God.”


IF MUYBRIDGE'S YOSEMITE was emptied of God, Ansel Adams photographed a land devoid of people. Adams and fellow modernists confidently used formalist means, and a new generation of cameras, to restore visual reverence to the Yosemite landscape. Adams was equally determined that photography take its place alongside painting and sculpture as a serious art form. In fact, Yosemite painting was already kitschy and largely moribund by 1920s, when Adams’ work began in earnest. His photography, not painting, restored excitement and a secular grace to pictures of Yosemite. Adams depicted a pristine natural world, undefiled by people, and explicitly linked his work to conservationist causes and organizations, especially the Sierra Club. His aesthetics, severe and yet sensual, dominated Western landscape photography for the better part of the 20th century. It was only late in the century that Richard Misrach and like-minded photographers finally mounted a challenge to the portrayal of Yosemite as a “natural” landscape, rather than one substantially shaped by human hands.

Beyond photography, decorative arts also grew on Yosemite soil in the early 1900s, particularly after the National Park Service assumed administration of the park from the Army in 1916. Native American basket making, until then a utilitarian cultural craft, drew increased attention from collectors, which in turn inspired innovations by Lucy Telles, Carrie Bethel, Maggie Tabuce Howard, and other weavers. From 1916-1930, the park service promoted Indian Field Days, a demeaning summer spectacle in which the remaining Yosemite Indians and nearby tribes were paid to don Plains Indians costumes and pose in front of fake “wigwams”—practices that later caused the festival to be condemned and terminated. Ironically, the event was simultaneously an occasion for Indian basket weavers to exchange ideas and attract paying collectors to their work, which led to greater income and respect. This history, too, is presented in Yosemite: A Storied Land, and Yosemite’s best-known contemporary weaver, Julia Parker, is represented in stories from a new biography, Scrape the Willow Until It Sings, by Bay Area textile artist Deborah Valoma, as well as through photographs, videos, and a small collection of her baskets.

Although interpreted by non-Indian artists, Native American basket motifs also dominate the walls and ceilings of Yosemite’s luxury hotel, The Ahwahnee, which opened in 1927. Overseen by agency founder Stephen Mather, The Ahwahnee helped define the “National Park Service Rustic” style that still guides architecture in national parks. An essay in the eBook, “Imagining the Ahwahnee,” explores the origins of the style and the progressive ideals behind it, particularly the influence of architects and designers associated with the University of California, Berkeley, and the First Bay school. Julia Morgan, John Galen Howard, and especially Bernard Maybeck were leaders of the school, which in turn was inspired by Britain’s Arts & Crafts movement, and emphasized harmony with the natural environment.

Yosemite: A Storied Landscape credits the Japanese-American watercolorist Chiura Obata, a friend of Adams, with reviving the painting tradition in the park. On a to Yosemite’s high country in July 1927 with fellow artists Worth Ryder and Robert Boardman Howard (Galen Howard’s son), Obata found the inspiration for his subsequent life’s work, making as many as 150 sumi drawings and watercolors in the month and a half he camped and hiked there. Returning for two years to Japan in 1929, Obata employed some of that nation’s finest woodcut artists to make block prints from the paintings. A perfectionist, he often used 100 or more passes to achieve subtle color wash effects in a medium originally designed for flat color. (EBook readers are offered an interactive feature where they can see how successive layers of a print add detail and color.) Except for the WWII years, in which he was interned in a camp, Obata taught at Berkeley and continued to return to the park. Eleven of his color prints and paintings are represented in the exhibition and enhanced eBook, which also includes an essay by California art historian Susan Landauer.

The sweep of Yosemite: A Storied Landscape is broad, from the Native American history to the Civil War and Carleton Watkins’ landscape photographs to the founding of the park service and the modern period. In combining an exhibition with an enhanced eBook, the project utilizes different media and dimensions to tell its many stories, and enables a wider viewership. Most of all, Yosemite: A Storied Landscape suggests the depth and breadth of the surprising, funny, poignant, and sometimes tragic human stories that inhabit Yosemite as densely as its waterfalls and trees and chipmunks.

© Kerry Tremain, 2018