The Kolb Brothers: Founding Fathers of Photography at Grand Canyon

Out in the high desert dust of northern Arizona, towering over what is perhaps the deepest part of the Grand Canyon, sits the start of a trail that has existed for thousands of years. 

As it begins its devilishly steep descent, the trail switches back and forth rapidly losing elevation (5000+ ft when all said and done). Slightly more than midway down, a spring-fed creek arrives, seemingly out of nowhere, to which the simple dirt path follows through thickets of cottonwood trees, redbud, and lush areas overgrown with willow and other water-loving plantlife. A footpath for access to life-giving waters for the Native Americans who called this place home. 

By the time brothers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb arrived at Grand Canyon, in 1902, the Bright Angel Trail had been developed by prospectors and entrepreneurs as a part of a tourist enterprise, offering mule rides that would take tourists willing to part with a few dollars down into the Canyon. 

Shortly after stepping off of the train in the nearby railroad town of Williams, Arizona, Emery Kolb, using the last of his money, purchased a photo studio. An act that would eventually change the course of photography at Grand Canyon forever. 

By 1906, the brothers had their new photography business up and running, located inside a small wooden structure they called ‘Kolb Studio.’ .

Following planned photographs as the mule trains began their journey, Emery would then take their 5×7 view camera and run down the trail with the glass plate negatives to a small spring where the brothers had built a dark room. Then, Emery would retrace his steps following the trail the 4.5 miles and 3,000 ft of elevation gain back to the studio in time to sell those images to mule riders as they returned.

Photographing tourists brought the brothers some success, as much work as it did entail, yet they really began to garner notoriety once they started venturing deeper into the Canyon, in search of more interesting scenes. They’d perform seemingly death-defying stunts like hanging from ropes just to get a shot. 

With the publication of their images, the Kolbs brought the Grand Canyon to the masses in ways not previously seen. Prior to, only paintings could illustrate the magnificent Canyon to folks across the world. Inspired by the advent of moving pictures, as well as a desire for even more adventure, Emery and Elsworth took to the Colorado River in 1911 for their next endeavor. Their adventure lasted one hundred and one days and provided an incredible collection of still images to go along with their film of the mishaps and triumphs, and there were certainly many of each. 

The brothers took the completed film on a vaudeville-style tour of the United States, presenting and lecturing coast to coast prior to returning to Kolb Studio. Following a rather heated business dispute just a few years later, the brothers flipped a coin for control of the business with Emery winning the toss and Ellsworth moving to Los Angeles. 

Grand Canyon National Park
All of this had taken place prior to this region being set aside as a National Park, which happened in 1919. The new National Park and its young Park Service administration would bring challenges for Emery that would last for the remainder of his life. 

Kolb studio now sat right in the middle of the new park’s major tourist center, and the Park Service wanted to remove the building because its architecture didn’t fit in with the style of the other buildings there. Meanwhile, Emery wanted not only to live in his home for the remainder of his days but also to be able to pass the business to his daughter, Edith. 

The two sides fought bitterly over this for years, and in the end it was decided that Emery could live in the home until he passed, yet the Park Service would take over the building upon Emery’s death. The building would remain. 

Kolb Studio Today
Today the Kolb Studio sits at the head of the Bright Angel Trail, just like it did in 1904. The house, which has been developed and restored over the years, is a monument to the brothers’ achievement and influence at Grand Canyon. The Studio now houses a gift shop, incredible views, as well as a gallery of fine art and artifacts. Emery and Ellsworths’ photographic contributions live on through the playing of their Colorado River film, just as it did when the past was present. 

Emery operated the studio and intermittently worked as a guide, consultant, and search & rescuer until his death, in 1976, at the age of 96. He was the last of the early pioneers, making his home for 73 years inside the little brown wooden house that he built with his brother. 

In the year 2020, photography and the Grand Canyon go hand-in-hand. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tourist who isn’t furiously working their camera. And with good reason! The Canyon is one of the most photogenic places in the world. Its mystery and depths are capable of instilling a dizzying sense of awe and grandeur, unlike any other place. Shadows seemingly dance across the colored sandstone towers, spires, mesas, and buttes below the rim, as the sun lowers on the horizon. Seasonal storms bring towering clouds, sheets of rain and lightning in summer, snowstorms in winter. 

And whether visitors know it, or not, this simple activity of making photographs at Grand Canyon can be traced back to a couple of brothers from Pennsylvania, and their pursuit to document their home and its surroundings. A home that still stands to this day, at the top of that ancient old trail towering over the Grand Canyon somewhere out in the high desert dust of Arizona.

Kenton Krueger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

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