Is a picture worth a thousand words? After a trip to the Grand Canyon most visitors find that their photographs do not adequately capture their sensory experience of it, whether taking in a panoramic view from the rim or a more intimate encounter in the depths of the canyon. The camera cannot faithfully reproduce what the eye sees and the body senses, especially in the glare of mid-day when most visitors encounter the canyon. Yet, a skilled photographer working in the right place at the right time can create portraits of the canyon experience easily worth a thousand words.
Photographic technology has undoubtedly shaped perceptions of the Grand Canyon and enhanced our capacity to share its beauty and majesty with others. Perhaps more than words, images of the Grand Canyon have motivated millions of people worldwide to travel to this out-of-the-way corner of northern Arizona to experience the canyon for themselves.
An amateur geologist might journey to the canyon to get a first-hand view of the rock formations seen in textbooks and first photographed by American explorers less than a decade after the Civil War. A family might pull up to the South Rim to peer into the canyon’s depths so often portrayed in Arizona Highways. A river runner might push off from Lees Ferry in hopes of experiencing the Colorado River as depicted in one of the many coffee-table books designed to help save the river from dams and commercial development.
The Grand Canyon is pre-eminently a visual park, a grand optical spectacle. It is impossible to capture the Grand Canyon’s ever-changing moods in a single photo. But that doesn’t stop many of the world’s greatest photographers from trying. For more than a century men and women from all walks of life have photographed the canyon from different vantage points, at different times of day, and in different seasons.
They have tramped from rim to river in search of evocative places and transcendent moments when light and landforms combine into a visual epiphany; each of them aspiring to leave the canyon with lasting images of what are usually the most fleeting views; many of them hoping to evoke a sense of humility and reverence for that which is greater than themselves.
A great photograph is usually the result of countless hours of planning, preparation, purchases, and travel. Once a vantage point has been selected, photographers often wait hours, if not days, for conditions they hope will produce a breath-taking picture. They wait for sunrise, sunset, a certain amount of cloud cover, or even lightning to strike in the background.
They know that summer rains create more saturated colors in the rocks, while winter snows provide striking contrast between the Grand Canyon’s numerous layers. For experienced photographers, pressing the camera’s shutter button is the last step in a long process of study, research, exploration, and artistic vision. While technology has changed the way photographers produce their work, the Grand Canyon has remained a unique source of inspiration.
The development of modern photography coincided with American exploration of and migration to the Southwest. As the young nation grew, so did its appetite for settlements west of the Mississippi River. The Southwest was of particular interest when the Powell Expedition began its storied journey in 1869 to survey the Green and Colorado rivers.
Powell’s group launched its boats at Green River, Wyoming and traveled the labyrinthine canyons of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Reports of “grand” mile-deep canyons enthralled the nation and inspired Congress to commission better-funded exploration of the region.
Subsequent government-sponsored surveys brought the first photographers to the Grand Canyon as members of scientific teams that included naturalists, geologists, cartographers, and artists. These early photographers captured images as beautiful as they were informative, providing empirical evidence to support the fantastic descriptions of the explorers.
The first images of the canyon and the river that carved it were captured by surveyor and photographer Timothy O’Sullivan in 1871. He accompanied the Wheeler expedition that journeyed upstream from the western end of the canyon to Diamond Creek. O’Sullivan’s assignment was probably a welcome departure for him from his previous Civil War assignments that had gained him recognition. The photographs he captured of the Grand Canyon contrasted sharply with his somber, heartbreaking portrayals of the Battle of Gettysburg’s aftermath.
O’Sullivan’s arduously acquired photographs depicted a landscape both beautiful and desolate. Unlike the convenient photo technologies of today, a single image required much more effort in O’Sullivan’s day. Preparing a single exposure required clean water, rarely available in the silty Colorado River, and a multitude of chemicals for coating and processing the glass plates on which the images were captured. O’Sullivan had to haul the chemicals in jugs up steep slopes to sites with panoramic views and keep the glass plates immaculately free of dust—a difficult task in the wind-blown desert.
Sadly, most of O’Sullivan’s glass plate images shattered during transport back to Washington D.C. The ones that survived, however, can still be viewed today. Many scholars revere O’Sullivan as one of America’s first great landscape photographers, praising his unique approach to viewing the canyon landscape as natural architecture and masterfully capturing combinations of light and rock (Trimble). In the spring of 2010, O’Sullivan’s photos were highlighted in a major exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
While the Wheeler survey was underway, a more serious and more successful effort to explore and document the Grand Canyon began. John Wesley Powell set out on his second expedition down the Colorado River in May 1871. Powell’s party included E. O. Beaman who photographed the river and canyons from Green River, WY, to Lees Ferry — the beginning of the Grand Canyon. In the winter of 1871-1872 Powell’s party left the river to survey the Kaibab Plateau. During that time, Beaman left the expedition to go back East to sell his photographs. Powell then recruited James Fennemore to take Beaman’s place. But Fennemore stayed with the party only through the spring of 1872. All during this time, a young boatman Powell had recruited in Salt Lake City at the start of the expedition, John K. (“Jack”) Hillers, had been assisting the photographers with their thousand pounds of tripods, glass plates, and camera gear. Hillers’s apprenticeship to Beaman and Fennemore was fortunate because when Powell resumed his trip through the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1872, Fennemore declined to go. This left Hillers as the only member of the expedition with any useful knowledge of photography. To his great credit, he had a gift for composing photographs and making the best use of light. His Grand Canyon images — among the first ever made — also rank among the very best. This experience started Hillers on a 25-year career as a photographer including a stint as chief photographer for the U.S. Geologic Survey. Hillers’ photographs can be seen online at the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library, key word search for “Hillers, J.K.”
Robert Brewster Stanton made the same journey seven years later. Stanton extensively photographed each bend of the Green and Colorado Rivers in hopes of building a railroad following the river through the Grand Canyon.
The turn of the century brought great changes to the Grand Canyon and to the practice of photography. Technological innovations made it possible for average Americans to own and operate simple, affordable cameras.
In 1897, George Eastman’s Kodak Company revolutionized photography with the release of the “Brownie.” That year, Kodak sold 250,000 Brownies, for a dollar each. In the words of Harold Evans, “This was the camera that truly democratized photography.” Tourism boomed with the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in 1901, and tourists were eager to bring home their own images of the canyon using their beloved new devices.
Photography’s role at this time evolved from documenting the canyon’s existence to documenting personal experiences there. This perfect storm of technological advancements and the recent development of tourism at the South Rim enabled two brothers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to become the Grand Canyon’s first full-time commercial photographers. Ellsworth Kolb first arrived in 1901, just months after the last rail lines were laid down at the South Rim. He worked for a year at one of the rim’s hotels as a porter while becoming acquainted with the area. His younger brother, Emery, soon joined him, enticed by Ellsworth’s plan to make money selling photos to tourists who wanted mementos of their trip to the Grand Canyon.
By 1903, they had set up a makeshift tent at the Bright Angel trailhead and were making a modest living photographing mule trains of tourists as they made their slow descent below the rim. Over the years, they photographed tens of thousands of people, including many famous ones such as Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Albert Einstein and others.
The Kolbs eventually built a permanent home and studio at the trailhead and spent much of their time photographing hard-to-reach places in the canyon. Their studio included an auditorium where they showed a motion picture they produced in 1912 as they traveled through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. The brothers toured the United States with the movie, then brought it back home where it ran daily until 1976. The movie still holds the title of the longest continually running movie in United States history.
Emery Kolb lived a long life, documenting the development of tourism at the Grand Canyon over 75 years. The Kolb Studio remains intact today at the head of the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. The Grand Canyon Association owns and manages it, providing a public bookstore, exhibition gallery, and lookout.
Great changes came to the Grand Canyon in the 1920s. Congress designated the canyon a national park in 1919 and this drew more visitors who increasingly arrived in Model Ts rather than by rail. Automobile tourism boomed in this decade. The freedom of the private automobile allowed tourists to take more control of their destinations, timetables, and activities.
The Brownie camera fit well in this milieu. Many tourists preferred to snap their own pictures instead of purchasing picture postcards available in gift shops. Professional photography was changing as well. Photographs became sharper and clearer, and photographers worked increasingly with artistic rather than merely documentary motives. Their images portrayed mood and theme, as well as a place.
Then in 1934 Kodak’s fine-grained Kodachrome color film revolutionized both amateur and professional photography. The Grand Canyon, with its multi-hued landscape, provided the perfect showcase for this new technology.
In the 1950s and 1960s, vivid color photographs of the Grand Canyon and other national parks played an important political role in the environmental movement. Conservationists turned to photographers to raise awareness about America’s diminished and threatened wildernesses, pairing their breathtaking images of places like Yosemite Valley, Echo Park, and Grand Canyon with conservation essays and nature poetry. The Sierra Club’s Executive Director, David Brower, refined this practice of combining great photos with persuasive writing in what became known as “battle books.”
The award-winning Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series was the organization’s most effective weapon in the fight against big business and environmentally destructive legislation. Beginning with the 1955 book, This is Dinosaur, which helped win the battle to stop a proposed dam at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, these battle books showcased threatened environments across the country including the Big Sur coast, California’s redwood forests, the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Alaska’s Glacier Bay, and, of course, the Grand Canyon.
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation proposed building two dams on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon (at Marble Canyon and Bridge Canyon), over a dozen photographers collaborated to produce Time and the River Flowing in 1964.Their photos, paired with essays and narration, exquisitely depicted the powerful Colorado, its tributaries, and the countless canyons those rivers had patiently carved. The book was instrumental in defeating the legislation that would have authorized the dams.
This was a desperate battle for the Sierra Club and its allies, though, because the previous year marked the closing of the gates at Glen Canyon Dam and the gradual filling of Lake Powell upstream of the Grand Canyon. To win the battle over Echo Park the Sierra Club had acceded to the Bureau of Reclamation’s proposal to dam Glen Canyon, not realizing what a beautiful and unique stretch of river it contained. The Sierra Club almost immediately regretted the trade-off.
As the dam was being built the club hired conservationist and photographer Elliot Porter to capture the last, hauntingly beautiful images of the canyon before it disappeared forever beneath Lake Powell. The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado was published in 1963 as the reservoir filled. It served as an elegy to Glen Canyon and testimony to the risks of complacency.
Whether threatened or not, the Grand Canyon remained an inspiring landscape for photographers and nature lovers. In fact, photography became a popular medium for artistic expression and engagement with nature, especially with the widespread dissemination of 35mm color film and “single lens reflex” (SLR) cameras that quickly came to dominate the popular photography market in the 1950s and 1960s.
Reflecting this trend, in 1968 the Sierra Club released Grand Canyon of the Living Colorado, featuring the work of photographer Ernest Braun who used the smaller, lighter hand-held 35mm camera rather than bulky the large format 4X5 cameras that most professional landscape photographers preferred. With the flexibility of a smaller camera and interchangeable lenses Braun could compose his photos in a moving boat and feature people in action. This book and others like it inspired many serious amateurs and boosted the 35mm camera market.
Photography helped build the worldwide notoriety of the Grand Canyon and modern environmental sympathies. By extension it helped protect the canyon from dams, trams, mining, and the tacky commercialism that has marred many other national landmarks.
As a result, modern photographers confront a less dire challenge: how to make an individual photographic statement in one of the most photographed natural landscapes in the world. The sheer number of photographs already published in books, magazines and postcards give many people the world over a sense that they already “know” the canyon through its ubiquitous imagery. A Google image search of the phrase “Grand Canyon” in April 2010 yielded 3.3 million results. Photos, photos everywhere.
Millions of visitors still come to the Grand Canyon every year seeking that iconic visual experience. Most of them will take photographs or enjoy pictures taken by family or friends on their pilgrimage to the park. This extraordinary parade of visitors reveals a profound affection for this remarkable landscape in particular and a human reverence for nature in general. At the heart of these millions of clicking cameras are individual experiences.
Whether people choose to snap pictures from the canyon’s rim, its river, or the infinite number of nooks and crannies in between, these photographers approach the Grand Canyon with passion, patience, and talent which, in turn, yield some of the most beautiful photographs taken anywhere on earth.
In his book Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography, Stephen Trimble presents some of the Grand Canyon’s most stunning images and the photographers who captured them. His deeply informed and insightful narrative reflects his twin passions for photography and the Grand Canyon. This book is a must read for any photography buff. For those who are not; prepare to become one.
Written By Christopher Johnson and Paul Hirt
- Braun, Ernest. Grand Canyon of the Living Colorado. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1970.
- Evans, Harold. They Made America. New York: Time Warner, 2004.
- Fitzharris, Tim. The Sierra Club Guide to 35mm Landscape Photography. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club, 1994.
- Fowler, Don D. Myself in the Water: The Western Photographs of John K. Hillers. Smithsonian Institution, 1990.
- Fowler, Don D., ed. Photographed All the Best Scenery: Jack Hillers’s Diary of the Powell Expeditions, 1871-1875. University of Utah Press, 1972.
- Jurovics, Toby, et al. Framing the West, The Survey Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.
- Leydet, Francois. Time and the River Flowing. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1964.
- Library of Congress. “Exploring the Colorado.” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr014.html
- Powell, John Wesley. Explorations of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York,: Penguin Books, 1997.
- Pace, Michael Dean. “Emery Kolb: Grand Canyon Photographer and Explorer.” Flagstaff: Northern Arizona University, 1982.
- Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography, 3rd ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1997.
- Stanton, Robert Brewster. Down the Colorado. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1965.
- Trimble, Stephen. Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography. Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing, 2006.
- US Geological Survey Photographic Library. http://libraryphoto.cr.usgs.gov/