to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon take a break
from hiking trails to explore the Desert View
Watchtower on March 10, 2015. Resembling a Native
American structure, the four-story tower was
designed by architect Mary Colter and completed in
CANYON NATIONAL PARK — They were just a couple of
greenhorns from Pittsburgh, but the Kolb brothers knew the
greatest photo op in the West when they saw it.
was 1902. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway had
just begun service to the Grand Canyon. The Kolbs gaped at
the South Rim and bought the only photo studio for miles
around. Then they set up shop at the head of the Bright
Angel Trail, snapping tourists on muleback.
as now, the saddled-up tourists and their mules would
clip-clop down the switchback trail into the vast chasm,
denying vertigo, approaching infinity.
the time those tourists returned that night to the rim,
the Kolbs would have prints to sell them — proof of the
travelers’ valor and the canyon’s desolate beauty, all
in one frame.
empire was born, as was one way of seeing the Grand
you show up on the South Rim in 2015, as Los Angeles Times
photographer Mark Boster and I did recently, you have to
wonder what the Kolbs would say. The mules still clomp
down the hill, tourists fidgeting in their saddles. The
Kolb studio, grown to a five-story structure, still stands
with an odd, smallish window on its west wall, facing the
trail. For more than 65 years, that’s where the
photographer, usually Emery Kolb, snapped the group shot
of the mule riders, including former President Teddy
Roosevelt and his group in 1911.
nobody works that window now because we tourists have our
smartphones, GoPros, DSLRs and tripods. Instead of letting
somebody frame the canyon for us with a piece of pricey
equipment, we can do it ourselves — if only that guy
with the selfie stick would move a few feet.
our four days at the canyon in March, we spent lots of
time dodging selfie sticks, thinking about image makers
and chasing images ourselves.
rose in bitter-cold darkness to catch sunrises at the
Bright Angel trailhead and Mather Point (which loses color
and gains crowds as the day goes on). We lingered in a
stiff breeze for a Mohave Point sunset, hoping a miracle
gap might open in the wall of clouds. (It didn’t.)
squinted and cheered through a golden sunset at Desert
View, where the river is visible at the bottom of the
canyon. And we eavesdropped at the mule stables while
guides saddled up the morning’s riders.
is not a pony ride at the county fair," a guide told
the rookies one morning. "Two hours from now, you’re
all going to be crippled. Except the kids."
we eavesdropped in a lot of places.
thumb’s so numb I can’t text," complained one
shivering man at Mather Point.
in New York, they don’t know what ‘RV parking’
means," said a peeved woman, confronting a BMW (with
East Coast plates) in the wrong part of the Visitor Center
done a lot of hiking, and my fear of height has pretty
much gone away," said Casey Hinson of Houston as he
posed on a small ledge above a deep chasm.
never hiked down more than 1½ miles below the canyon rim,
but I probably spent five hours on the Bright Angel Trail
(using crampons, because there was still plenty of ice).
The view was almost paralyzing, and it changed with every
step. As I trudged and lingered, I imagined Emery Kolb, 5
feet, 2 inches and full of cantankerous energy,
shouldering past me.
was the younger brother. Biographer William C. Suran
writes that he was shrewd, scrappy and 21 when the
business was born. (Ellsworth, adventurous and easygoing,
was 26. He arrived first, in 1901.)
the early years of the studio, after Emery snapped the
tourists at the trailhead with a 5-by-7 camera, he would
hike 4½ miles down the trail to Indian Garden, halfway to
the canyon floor. Why? Because it had the nearest running
water, and that’s where his rustic darkroom was set up.
Once his negatives were processed and prints were made,
Kolb would rush back up the trail to beat the returning
routine might seem enough to keep a photographer busy. But
in the fall and winter of 1911-12, the Kolbs got hold of
an early movie camera and decided to film themselves
following the long, death-defying route of John Wesley
Powell’s first descent of the Colorado River. Starting
on the Green River in Wyoming, passing through the canyon
and finishing at Needles, Calif., the two (with two
helpers at different times) spent 101 days on the river,
surviving hundreds of rapids.
together, their footage amounted to the first motion
picture showing the Grand Canyon — and it may have kept
the company afloat. In 1914, the Santa Fe Railway and the
Fred Harvey Co. had architect Mary Colter build a rival
photo studio to grab the Kolbs’ business. But the
brothers counterpunched. They added an auditorium to their
studio and in 1915 started screening their movie nightly,
with live narration. It was a hit.
moved to Los Angeles and sold his share of the business in
1924, but Emery continued to photograph the mule strings
through the window and narrate the film nightly. He lived
in the studio building with his wife, Blanche, and their
grew up and Blanche died in 1960, but Emery stayed at it.
As late as 1969, at 88, he was still shooting two mule
strings a day. By late 1976, when Emery died at age 95,
the film had been running nightly for more than 60 years,
and Kolb had photographed an estimated 50,000 mule
strings. (If you caught the Grand Canyon parts of Ken
Burns’ 2009 PBS series on the national parks, you may
have seen some of his footage.) Meanwhile, the
cliff-clinging Kolb building had surpassed 50 years of
age, which officially made it part of Grand Canyon
the Grand Canyon Association uses it as a gallery and gift
shop (still in competition with the Lookout Studio down
the path). The old auditorium is filled with an exhibition
on the Kolbs.
private residential rooms are "too delicate" for
frequent tours, studio manager Robb Seftar said, but he
was willing to show me around, including the room with the
view where Emery Kolb often lay in his last months and the
little window where he used to take the mule-string shots.
We also prowled around the adjacent darkroom, built to
succeed the one at Indian Garden. It was still full of the
a strange thing to admit after four days in panoramaland,
but the Grand Canyon location that lingers most vividly in
my senses today is the little window and the cramped,
viewless darkroom where Kolb framed the canyon for so many
American travelers. At least 40 years after the old man
developed his last picture, it still smells of fixer.