Watkins was a great artist but a terrible businessman. In 1875 he lost his San Francisco studio and his entire stock of negatives to creditors, and, as a result, he was actively soliciting commissions when he might otherwise have relied on income from printing existing negatives. One of Watkins’s best clients hired him to conduct a visual inventory of his vast property near Bakersfield, in Kern County, California, to entice people to buy land and settle there. Watkins obliged by exposing at least seven hundred 8-by-10-inch glass plate negatives, along with numerous even bigger “mammoth” plates, of which this is undeniably his finest.
On a printed label beneath the photograph are two statements: one by the property owner, attesting to the fertility of the land; another by the Kern County Board of Trade, certifying that the owner’s statement is true. Photography’s usefulness as evidence was established with its invention in 1839, and its fictive possibilities began to be exploited not long after that (thus the need for Kern County’s certificate).
Late George Cling Peaches distills space in a strikingly modern way, decades before such disturbances became commonplace; the void on the right-hand side of the image, created by two pairs of fuzzy fruit that don’t quite make contact, animates the eye’s path with the metaphorical potential of impenetrable depth.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Carleton Watkins photographed the landscape of the American West. He often worked on commission and took this closely framed photograph of a crate full of peaches on assignment. Watkins was tasked with taking pictures of landholdings in Kern County, California, to attract prospective buyers to the region. Among the qualities he was asked to emphasize were the fertility of the land and its ready access to water, both of which are evoked in this photograph of plump peaches. To support this photograph’s function as evidence, Watkins affixed to its mount a certificate vouching for the authenticity of its content.
Additional text from Seeing Through Photographs, online course, Coursera, 2016