Impressive 19th-Century Yosemite Photographs
Likely by Charles L. Weed - the Pioneer of Yosemite Photography
With an Unusual Focus on People and the Built Environment in Yosemite
A wonderful contemporary album of 12 fine albumen photographs of Yosemite. The photographs are mounted on card, with neatly printed captions in the mounts, adding a luxurious bespoke touch to the whole. These albumen prints were acquired by a well-to-do Welshman named William Rees, likely during a visit to California in the early 1870s. Rees then had the prints bound up in this nice album as a gift for his sister, Anne Lewis, the wife of a prominent Welsh coal magnate. The views date from the first half of the 1870s and are elegant representations of the breathtaking vistas and natural wonders of the Yosemite Valley. While the photographs are unsigned, we believe they were created by Charles L. Weed, the first photographer to bring a camera into Yosemite, during one of his later forays into Yosemite in the 1870s.
A full listing of the photographs and a discussion of the attribution follow below.
Yosemite and American Landscape Photography
During the 19th century, American landscape photography underwent a significant transformation as photographers ventured into the uncharted territories of the American West. This period, known as the Golden Age of American Landscape Photography, saw the emergence of talented photographers who sought to capture the awe-inspiring beauty of the Western landscapes. More than any other place, Yosemite Valley served as the favorite subject for these pioneering photographic artists, helping to define the direction of American landscape photography. Charles L. Weed, Carleton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge were among the early photographers who played a crucial role in documenting and popularizing the majestic landscapes of Yosemite. The present group of evocative Yosemite photographs, dating from the mid-1870s, comes directly out of this then-still-developing tradition of landscape photography of the West. As Gary Kurutz put it: "Over the next four decades [after Weed's initial Yosemite photograph of 1859] Yosemite Valley would play a major role in shaping pioneer landscape photography of the American West... photography conveyed Yosemite's stunning beauty and exotic wilderness appeal to a mass audience, bringing the valley iconic fame and setting a standard for aspiring landscape and tourist photographers across the country."
Provenance and Attribution
The presentation inscription to Anne Lewis from "her brother William," dated November 14th 1876, is almost certainly by William Rees to his sister Anne Lewis (née Rees), the wife of Welsh coal magnate William Thomas Lewis (1837-1914), who lived at Aberdare. Anne Rees, the daughter of colliery owner William Rees of Lletyshenkin (Aberdare), married Lewis in 1864. A similar album of 12 Yosemite photographs, inscribed on the same date, but to "Daniel Rees, from his brother William" surfaced at auction in 2017. William Rees likely acquired the Yosemite photographs during a California trip in the early or mid-1870s, then subsequently had them bound up in Aberdare for his siblings as luxurious souvenirs of his California trip. Indeed, there is a tiny Welsh binder's ticket on the front pastedown of the volume: B. R. S. Frost, bookbinder, Aberdare. Rees must have acquired these photographs from one of the pioneer photographers (or photography dealers) marketing Yosemite views in the 1870s. Given the provenance and timeframe of the album, we can whittle down our list of potential photographers to quite a small number. First and foremost we can eliminate Carleton Watkins, as none of the views can be identified against that famous photographer's extensively cataloged work. Moreover, the present photographs have the occasional human figure, cabin, fence, or other sign of human intervention, all of which Watkins assiduously omitted from his Yosemite compositions. For similar, if more subtle differences in composition, we can also dismiss Eadweard Muybridge.
Charles Leander Weed
We attribute these photographs to Charles L. Weed (1824-1903), an often overlooked yet highly significant early Western photographer. In fact, Weed was the first to use a camera in Yosemite, having made the first documented photographs in Yosemite Valley in June 1859. His earliest Yosemite work notably predates that of Carleton Watkins. Weed continued to photograph in Yosemite after competing photographers entered the fray, and the present photographs likely date from Weed's later photographic expeditions in the Valley. In fact, it was around 1870-71 that Weed reestablished himself as a photographer in San Francisco after trying his luck in Hong Kong. Upon returning to California, he primarily associated with the firm of Thomas Houseworth, an early San Francisco photographic publisher who never credited Weed in their marketing. Weed worked in various formats in Yosemite, including mammoth plates and stereographs, and left the marketing of his views to others (usually Thomas Houseworth). According to Weston Naef, "Weed's never issuing photographs with his own imprint suggests that his livelihood came as a camera operator for someone else."
The First Photographer in Yosemite
After early photographic forays into the California mining regions, notably resulting in a remarkable series of salted-paper prints of the Middle Fork of the American River in 1858, Weed moved to San Francisco in the spring of 1859 to assist Robert H. Vance to reopen a photographic gallery. Soon Weed was being described as proprietor of the gallery in the San Francisco directories of the time. James Mason Hutchings then commissioned Weed to create photographs in Yosemite, to serve as the source images for a series of engravings to illustrate articles on Yosemite in Hutchings' California Magazine.
According to Peter E. Palmquist:
At 11:25 A.M. on June 18, 1859, Weed took the first photograph of Yosemite, a view of the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. During his visit to the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove, Weed took at least twenty large glass-plate negatives and forty stereo negatives.
Mary V. Hood, who with her husband William Hood undertook extensive research on Weed's photographic career, summarized Weed as a person who loved making photographs much more than creating a name for himself:
A man who was oblivious to rough trails, and blistering heat for something he considered worthwhile. We are left with a picture of a self-effacing artist, skilled in exacting media, to whom no physical exertion was too great if a beautiful or interesting photograph could be obtained. - Charles L. Weed, Yosemite's First Photographer, page 87.
Palmquist expands on why sorting out Charles L. Weed's photographic legacy has been a challenging project for historians:
Because of the relatively few original works which are firmly known to be Weed's, the process of establishing his pictorial legacy has been difficult. Weed did not commonly sign or otherwise identify his prints, nor did he advertise his activities as avidly as his contemporaries. He also appears to have been reticent to exploit his accomplishments, a failing which has been compounded by some historians' dismissal of Weed's photographs as technically poor or artistically primitive. Nevertheless, while Weed's landscape views may lack the perfection of Watkins or Muybridge at their best, Weed deserves considerable credit for his pioneering photographic efforts - Palmquist, California's Peripatetic Photographer: Charles Leander Weed, California History (Fall 1979), page 199 and passim.
Whether Weed's work warrants the label "primitive" (Weston Naef used the term in comparing Weed's Yosemite photographs to Watkins's later work) remains a topic for debate. That his Yosemite photographs were direct rivals to those of Watkins is without doubt. Weed was purportedly present at the 1867 Paris International Expedition, where "the long simmering rivalry between Lawrence and Houseworth (represented by Charles Leander Weed) and Carleton E. Watkins [reached] a head-to-head showdown [in which each of] these giants of Western photography received bronze medals, the highest award given to photographs" - Peter Palmquist. And of course, Weed stands indisputably as the first to venture into Yosemite with a camera (in 1859), preceding the likes of Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and all the others.
John James Reilly
Although not definitive, our attribution of the present photographs to Weed is based on three pillars: the first is style, the images are of a piece with known Weed photographs of Yosemite. The second element is their unsigned status, perfectly in keeping with Weed's self-effacing low profile. Finally, and perhaps most important, there are not many other candidates at this early period who might have created our photographs. We have already discounted the possibility that Carleton Watkins could have made the images. We can also dismiss Muybridge and George Fiske, mainly based on style. One remaining possibility is John James Reilly (sometimes listed as James J. Reilly or J. J. Reilly), a Scotsman and friend of John Muir who worked in Yosemite from 1870 to 1876. Reilly was one of the first successful commercial operators in Yosemite. He enjoyed an enviable reputation for the quality of his Yosemite views, which have been likened by Weston Naef to Muybridge's work, due to a similar romantic style, in contrast to Watkins's "austere classicism." Reilly cultivated a prestigious clientele, including P. T. Barnum, the scientist Joseph LeConte, and Theresa Yelverton, the Viscountess of Avonmore, an English novelist who befriended John Muir. According to Gary Kurutz, Reilly was the first to set up a proper photographic studio in Yosemite Valley:
One of the most devoted and accomplished Yosemite photographers during the stereo era was James J. Reilly. After five years of photographing visitors to the most famous tourist spot in America, Niagara Falls, the native of Scotland traveled to overland to California in 1870 and, in May, found himself in the valley for the "visiting season." He became the first to set up a photographic establishment in the valley... Every spring and summer until 1876, Reilly returned to the valley and created an incomparable record of stereo views, many of which he sold to other photographers and publishers... On several occasions, he explored the Yosemite wilderness and backcountry with John Muir, the soon-to-be-famous naturalist... Possessing a practiced eye, he excelled with mirror effects, dramatic use of shadow, and unconventional camera angles. The inclusion of clouds (even thunderclouds) in many of his strereos rivaled in brilliance Muybridge's images - Yosemite: Art of an American Icon (2006), page 77.
Further comparative work may confirm Weed or Reilly as our photographer. One thing is sure, the quality of the photographs, exhibiting very good composition and being of a fairly large format, suggests someone who had advanced far beyond amateur-level photography. The album is an exciting opportunity for further research that will likely shed further light on the early period of Yosemite photography.
The photographs have letterpress titles printed on the card mounts, represented here in italics:
Vernal Fall: The photograph depicts the dramatic descent of Vernal Fall, with its cascading waters against the backdrop of towering cliffs and vegetation.
Cathedral Peak: The magnificent Cathedral Peak, its jagged silhouette piercing the sky.
Yo-Semite Falls: The image showcases the majestic Yo-Semite Falls, with its powerful rush of water plunging down a granite precipice.
Bridal Veil Falls: This photograph reveals the ethereal beauty of Bridal Veil Falls, which resembles a delicate bridal veil against the rugged landscape.
North and South Domes: Features the iconic and monumental North and South Domes.
Three Brothers: Portrays the trio of prominent granite peaks, standing proudly side by side.
El Capitan: One of Yosemite's most recognizable landmarks, El Capitan takes center stage in this photograph. Its sheer vertical face looms large, displaying the raw power and immensity of nature.
North and South Dome from Glacier Point: This image provides a sweeping view of the North and South Domes as seen from Glacier Point. The photograph captures the vastness of the Yosemite Valley.
Cathedral Rocks: Showcases the impressive Cathedral Rocks, the intricate details of the rock formations beautifully rendered, adding depth and texture to the composition.
Yo-Semite Valley from Inspiration Point: A panoramic vista that captures the expanse of the valley, framed by towering cliffs.
Glacier Point: The breathtaking view from Glacier Point, overlooking the Yosemite Valley. The image captures the sublime beauty of the valley, framed by granite cliffs and an expanse of wilderness, with a lone figure in a rowboat and a small cabin serving as a counterpoint to the awesome natural setting.
Nevada Fall and Cap of Liberty: The magnificent Nevada Fall, with its powerful rush of water plunging into the granite basin below. The Cap of Liberty, a distinctive rock formation, stands as a silent witness to this natural spectacle.
Whether by Weed or another photographer, such examples of Yosemite photographs - presented in a luxurious contemporary album dating from the 1870s, and thus well before the deluge of images produced by Kodak amateurs - are now rare in the market.