The Streets of San Francisco: Photographing City Life



Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) 

Lured west by the California Gold Rush, Watkins delivered supplies to miners in the Sierra foothills.  In 1852 he decided to become a professional photographer, eventually becoming the most famous photographers of  the early West. At first he worked for established photographers, but then went out on his own. Watkins had a studio and gallery a few blocks from where you’re standing, at 22-26 Montgomery Street.

Before 3D movies and television, a popular entertainment was looking at stereo views. The cards were placed in a viewer, creating a three-dimensional image of popular and exotic places.  Watkins published thousands of views of California, including Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevadas and the San Francisco Bay Area. His spectacular images of Yosemite Valley influenced Abraham Lincoln to preserve it in 1864.

Watkins’ images of San Francisco evoke a young metropolis poised on the edge of the Pacific. If you look carefully you can still find vestiges in today’s urban landscape.

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Photographs  courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections