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Kern County, California: Photographic Views by Carleton Watkins in the Library of Congress

An overview of a photographic survey commissioned in the 1880s showing Southern California agriculture, industry, and sites, this guide shows samples from the over 400 photographic prints in the Prints & Photographs Division and offers related resources.


Carleton Watkins, photographer. Kern Island canal head gate, 2 1/2 miles N.E. of Bakersfield, Kern County, Cal. . 1888. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

This series of views of Kern County, California, taken in the late 1880s, also known as the "Kern County Survey Collection," was among the last commissions completed by Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916), early American landscape photographer. Watkins had established a reputation with his photographs of sites in the Western U.S., especially his views of Yosemite, taken in the 1860s.

As part of an effort to publicize this Southern California region and encourage new settlement, local land developers asked Watkins to photograph Kern County agriculture, industry, and resources. The collection consists of 422 photographic prints (17 x 22 cm), two non-photographic images, and two maps, indicating boundary lines and land ownership.


In 1929 the Library received 415 original photographic prints in three albums from the survey by transfer from the Bureau of Reclamation. The albums were dismantled and the photographs with their associated printed captions were mounted by the Library on 9 ½ x 11 ½ inch boards. Library staff added 24 prints by Watkins related to Kern County; four are labeled "Watkins new series."