Kolb Brothers: Pioneering Grand Canyon Photographers

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Few people had visited Arizona’s Grand Canyon before the turn of the 20th century. The journey was long and difficult due to the rugged and remote location.

Even when the railroad reached Williams, Arizona, there were still 60 miles by stagecoach or horseback. The Santa Fe Railroad knew the canyon would be a major attraction to entice tourists to take their train west. Construction of the Williams Branch at the Grand Canyon therefore became a priority.

The railroad arrives at the Grand Canyon

The Santa Fe Railroad finally reached the Grand Canyon in 1901, making the Grand Canyon and surrounding area a major tourist destination. The magnificent El Tovar Hotel was built by the railway to allow tourists to stay in style during their visit.

One of the first to arrive by train was Ellsworth Kolb, 26. Soon his little brother Emery, 21, joined him. Emery had with him a guitar, a camera and a mouth organ. He entertained fellow passengers with his singing and guitar during the long journey from their family home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In 1902, they resided full-time in the Grand Canyon and spent their days hiking, exploring, and documenting it all with photographs. In the years that followed, the Kolb brothers essentially invented tourist photography, became the first independent filmmakers, produced the first reality show, and to some extent invented the selfie.

The Williams workshop

Ellsworth and Emery Kolb bought a photography studio in Williams, Arizona for $425; Emery exploited it for a year, photographing mostly saloon girls. When they understood the new demand for tourist photographs while people were visiting the canyon, they moved the studio there. There they established a thriving business photographing tourists as they descended the canyon on donkeys.

For the first few years, as soon as tourists walked past the camera, they would run four miles down Bright Angel Trail to the nearest water supply to develop film and make prints. They then walked up the trail to sell the photographs to tourists at the end of their day’s expedition.

The Bright Angel Trail.
A Kolb brother with a 5×7 camera.

By 1904 they had built a studio perched precariously on the side of the canyon at the head of Bright Angel Trail. There they continued tourist photography and also sold their incredible views of the Grand Canyon, many featuring the brothers performing incredible athletic feats in beautiful spots in the canyon.

Kolb workshop in 1904.

From the start, the Kolb Brothers, like other Grand Canyon contractors, had a constant struggle with the Santa Fe Railroad and the railroad’s partner, the Fred Harvey Company. The railroad had granted the Fred Harvey Company exclusive rights to operate hotels and restaurants along their routes and the Harvey Company expanded this definition to exclude anyone wishing to have a business near the railroad.

The federal government, through the Park Service, had a hands-off policy and pretty much let the railroads do whatever they wanted. This even included strategies such as building structures that intentionally blocked the view of Kolb Studio from the train station.

Kolb workshop in 1915.
Remote Kolb Studio in the 1900s.
Kolb Studio from below in the 1900s.

Relentless promotion of the Grand Canyon through prints, postcards, and traveling lectures by Emery Kolb helped make the Grand Canyon the premier tourist attraction it is today. As highways and automobiles became more common, the railroad lost its influence and the Fred Harvey Company went bankrupt. The story arc leans toward justice but isn’t always straight or fast.

Eventually, the National Park Service began to establish rules that allowed businesses to enjoy more favorable terms to operate on park land. This new competitive advantage has provided more goods and services available to the growing number of people who have visited the Grand Canyon.

The Great Colorado River Journey

With the invention of the motion picture camera, the Kolbs sensed an exciting new calling. With much effort and many letters, they became the owners of one of the first cinema cameras in private hands, a Pathe.

Ellsworth Kolb with the Pathe camera.

Even though they had no film experience and even less rafting experience, they decided to float down the Green River and Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and make a movie about the trip. The fact that only a handful of people made it through the journey and many more died trying didn’t deter them.

They launched their boat from Green River, Wyoming in September 1911. The journey was as dangerous and harrowing as one would expect in their untested wooden boats before the days of inflatable rubber rafts and experienced guides. . They arrived in Needles, California on January 18, 1912. They thus became the eighth expedition to successfully cross the rapids of the Grand Canyon. The film they made would become the longest-running documentary in cinematic history.

Theater

The Kolb brothers built a theater attached to their Grand Canyon studio, showing the film several times a day to amazed tourists until Emery’s death in 1976.

The theater auditorium inside the Kolb Studio.

At first he introduced the film, then walked up the stairs to start the projector, then came back down to narrate the film which included many stories of near death experiences. The narration was then recorded so that it could be shown in his absence.

The projector used by the Kolb brothers.

Take separate paths

Ellsworth and Emery had general disagreements based largely on their different personalities. Ellsworth was an easy-going daredevil and Emery was more cautious and ominous. So, out of the blue, they decided that one of them would stay at the Grand Canyon and the other would leave.

It’s unclear who won the toss, but Emery got the Grand Canyon Studio and Ellsworth moved to Los Angeles. There Ellsworth continued to make documentary films, becoming the first person to run and photograph the Green, Colorado, Grand, and Gunnison rivers.

The Kolb brothers later in life.

Blanche Kolb

Like so many wives of famous or pioneering photographers, Emery’s wife, Blanche, ran the studio and kept it afloat, raising their families while Emery traveled and photographed much of the West.

Emery Kolb’s wife, Blanche.

Emery also went on many lecture tours, showing images of the Grand Canyon and other natural sites, and telling great stories of their extraordinary lives.

Ellsworth died in 1960, and in 1962 Emery sold the Grand Canyon studio to the National Park Service with the agreement that he would operate it until his death. The studio and adjoining theater are still maintained by the National Park Service. The studio is now a Park Service gift shop, and the theater is an art gallery of beautiful Grand Canyon paintings and landscapes.

Kolb Studio as it looks today.
The gallery inside the Kolb Studio theatre.
The sign at the historic Kolb Studio.
Another view of the historic modern Kolb studio overlooking the Grand Canyon. NPS photo by Michael Quinn.

No visit to the Grand Canyon would be complete without seeing the carefully preserved Kolb Brother Studio and learning about the adventures and daring of these two pioneering photographers and filmmakers.

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