Departmental Events

Weapons of the Argonauts: Carleton Watkins’s Gold Rush Still Life and Portrait

Mining Tools photographed by Carleton E. Watkins, "Weapons of the Argonauts", 1866-72.
Carleton E. Watkins, Weapons of the Argonauts, 1866-72. Albumen print, 15 1/16 x 22 1/16 in. Hearst Mining Collection, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

4:30 pm | 2/15/2022 | Hybrid Event: 308A Doe Library (Mask Required) & Live on Zoom | Until 6:30 pm | 2/15/2022

Monica Bravo (University of Southern California)

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Those who flocked to Northern California during the Gold Rush were dubbed “forty-niners” or “argonauts.” The latter nomenclature places emphasis both on the quest and the pursuit of riches, pitching the fortune-seekers at the level of ancient Greek myth. Carleton E. Watkins—who would become the preeminent California landscape photographer of the nineteenth century—was among them, but so too were scores of laborers from abroad, all eager to extract the precious metal. In this quest, necessitating tools or “weapons,” earth was the enemy.

Watkins’s mammoth-plate still life Weapons of the Argonauts (1866-72) behaves as a surrogate for these individuals, as indeed portraits are rare in his oeuvre. Yet it harkens back to the early days of the Gold Rush, when primitive technologies were in use, and before mining became corporatized. Throughout his career, Watkins documented both the industry that produced minerals required by his chosen medium and a burgeoning economy that radically altered settlement in the region. By the 1870s, the romantic image of the loan miner panning for gold—a guise in which Watkins once portrayed himself, in a rare self-portrait—would be replaced by industrialized hydraulic mining, with devastating environmental consequences. Weapons of the Argonauts portends the elimination of small-scale mining, as independent workers were reduced to implements within faceless corporations. It also signals the effacement of multiethnic selves, as the argonauts adopted new identities as Californians.

Monica Bravo is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Southern California. Her publications have appeared in American Art, Art Criticism,, The History of Illustration, History of Photography, and Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. She is the author of Greater American Camera: Making Modernism in Mexico, published by Yale University Press in June 2021, with support from the Terra and Wyeth Foundations for American Art. It was shortlisted for the 2022 Charles Rufus Morey Book Award from the College Art Association. Research for this project was supported by fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the Center for Creative Photography, the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center, the Harry Ransom Center, the Huntington Library, and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Bravo’s next major research project, Silver Pacific: A Material History of Photography and its Minerals, 1840-1890, is currently being supported by a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society and a Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History of Art. Bravo is co-chair of Photography Network, a CAA Affiliated Society. Prior to coming to USC, she was an Assistant Professor at California College of the Arts, and a Lecturer at Yale University in the History of Art Department and Program in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration

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