Hidden away in the storerooms of The Society lie some of the great photographic treasures of California and the West. Photography first came to California in the form of the daguerreotype, a one-of-a-kind image rendered on a silvered metal plate. The Gold Rush created an acute demand for such exquisitely detailed images recalling distant loved ones or recording participation in the historic search for gold. Forty-niners routinely posed for daguerreotypes before leaving home and, once in San Francisco or the gold fields, they found plenty of additional daguerreotypists happy to photograph them for a modest fee. The earliest paper photographs in California were made on salted paper, creating warm-toned prints with a mat finish. The Society’s collection of salt prints, one of the finest in existence, is notable for its six bound volumes entitled Portraits of Members of the Society of California Pioneers. The sitters including Samuel Brannan and Thomas Larkin, but the images themselves lack any photographer’s credit. By the 1860s, the salt print began to lose ground to the albumen print, so called because the photographic emulsion lay suspended on the paper in a layer of egg white. They proliferated in a variety of sizes and formats from tiny cartes de visite to mammoth prints.
Thanks to the collodion negative, large-scale photographic publishing became feasible for the first time allowing photographers to issue views and portraits for sale as multiples. By far the most popular published views were stereographs, paired images taken with a doubled-lensed camera which, when viewed through a stereoscope, produced a striking illusion of three dimensions. One of the longest-lived stereo-publishing firms in California was Lawrence and Houseworth of San Francisco who maintained a vast inventory mounted in albums. The Society has three of these precious volumes containing nearly fifteen hundred stereo halves, four to page, and constituting an unparalleled visual record of Northern California and Nevada in the 1860s and 1870s.
In the fall of 1861, Carleton Watkins entered Yosemite Valley with a huge wooden camera, capable of producing glass-plate negatives as larges as 18×22 inches. Difficult under the best of conditions, the collodion process obliged Watkins to coat the giant glass plates with light-sensitive emulsion, make an exposure and develop the negative in a portable dark tent before the plate dried, thus creating a beautiful mammoth albumen print. The Society holds one of the finest collections of vintage prints by Watkins anywhere, thanks largely to a gift from photographer Charles B. Turrill, a friend and biographer of the artist. Watkins’ mammoth plates were a sensation on both coasts and his feat was soon repeated by Charles Leander Weed and Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge’s 360 degree panorama of San Francisco, photographed from the roof of Mark Hopkin’s Nob Hill mansion, is undoubtedly the crowning technical achievement of 19th century California photography.