This essay by historian Matthew Klingle compares the work of Carleton Watkins, a pioneer in early photography, and Michael Kolster, a contemporary photographer. Like his predecessor, Kolster uses the wet-plate photographic process to create ambrotypes: handmade images made on glass. Watkins’s images, made in the late-nineteenth century, helped to sell scenic, monumental California and the West to the nation. In contrast, Kolster’s photographs of the Los Angeles River, a degraded and often ignored urban waterway, suggest how older photographic techniques might be employed to create new aesthetics of place freed from the confines of purity and beauty.

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