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Posted on April 17, 2014

YosemiteSome pictures are worth much more than a thousand words. A new exhibit celebrates the work of Carleton Watkins, whose landscape photographs of the Yosemite Valley proved critical to the passage of the Yosemite Valley Grant Act 150 years ago.

In 1861, Watkins led a team of mules, carrying almost a ton of photographic equipment, across 75 miles of the eastern California wilderness. He used a custom-built camera to created “mammoth” 18 x 22-inch glass-plate negatives — capturing the scale and spirit of his subject in ways few had imagined.

“People were seeing a place for the first time that they had heard about, that they felt they knew and had a connection to,” says Elizabeth Kathleen Mitchell, the curator of the exhibit, “Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums,” at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Among those who had never seen the waterfalls, mountains, and cliff sides so stunningly showcased were President Abraham Lincoln and members of the 38th U.S. Congress. The power of the images influenced the country’s leaders to take the put into law the first federal protection of park land, paving the way for the national park program.

The exhibit will feature about 70 of Watkins’ mammoth negatives, with great care put into how each is positioned in the gallery.

“We’re really working to give each image enough space so that when you’re standing in front of it, you can really disappear into them,” says Mitchell.

Though 150 years old, Watkins images still have the power to astound.

Read the story in Rhapsody.

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