A rare collection of 116 albumen photographs taken between 1872-1875, opens on March 15, 2018, at the Thunderbird Foundation in Mt. Carmel, Utah. This extraordinary collection of images by John (Jack) Hillers was purchased by the foundation’s founders in 1998. Hillers produced a number of sets to be used by John Wesley Powell to lobby Congress for more money for his expeditions.

Among the annals of the exploration of the West, few stories rival that of Powell’s heroic exploration of the Colorado River. Among the 11 original crew members he hand-picked were E.O. Beaman from New York, enlisted as the official photographer, and Hillers (1843-1925), whom Powell had met by coincidence in Salt Lake City and signed on to “pull an oar.” 

Beaman’s photography equipment, weighing roughly a thousand pounds, included a large camera, portable dark room, tripods and large, very fragile glass plates used to make photo negatives with the colodium wet-plate method. Oarsman Hillers, recently discharged from the U.S. Army as a sergeant, was interested in Beaman’s work, and soon acted as his unofficial assistant.

Beaman’s historic photographs were to become the first images ever taken of the Green and upper Colorado River. Having survived canyons with such names as Desolation, Labyrinth and Cataract, aptly named by Powell, the group left the river to winter in Kanab, Utah.

Beaman left the survey in January 1872, after a dispute with Powell.  Powell put Hillers in charge of photography for the remainder of the expedition. 

Hillers would go on to work for the U.S. Geological Survey for the next 30 years as a photographer, and became one of the most important American photographers of the 19th century. He was especially interested in portraits of American Indians and worked for the Department of Ethnography under Powell’s direction to document indigenous peoples before their way of life disappeared.

Utah photography historian Nelson Wadsworth described Hillers’ work with the Paiutes: “In the fall of 1872, Powell set out to photograph the Kaibab Paiutes, who at the time were settled in their winter camp at the mouth of Kanab Canyon, not far from the Mormon settlement of Kanab. Earlier attempts to photograph the Paiutes had been unsuccessful because the Indians feared the camera. But now, accompanied by southern Utah Mormon leader Jacob Hamblin, the so-called “buckskin apostle” to the Indians, Powell met with the leader of the Kaibab Paiute band, Chuarumpeak. 

“With Hamblin’s reassurance, the Paiutes were at last convinced the camera would do them no harm. They gave Hillers the Indian name of ‘Myself in the Water,’ symbolic of his camera being able to capture their own reflections in the water in his magic wooden box.

“Thus began a long association of mutual trust between Powell and the Paiutes, which freely opened access to Hillers’ cameras. Many of the pictures in the Utah Tribes Exhibit are the result.”