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The American Experience

People & Events
John (Jack) K. Hillers (1843 - 1925)

John Hillers In May of 1871, a chance encounter in Salt Lake City between a scientific explorer and a recently-discharged U.S. Army sergeant proved to be fateful. From it would emerge a unique 30-year comradeship and one of the greatest photographic careers of the late 19th century. The explorer, Major John Wesley Powell, was in need of a boatman for his upcoming expedition through the Grand Canyon. The sergeant, John K. Hillers, was in need of a job. The two agreed on terms almost immediately. It was on this trip that the blue-eyed, sandy-haired, 28-year-old, army veteran learned to take photographs. At the end of his remarkable career, he would leave perhaps the most striking visual 19th century record of the West.

The journey Hillers was about to embark on was Powell's second excursion down the Colorado River. The Major's goal was to make up for the scientific inadequacies of the first. To do that he had spent months scouting locations where the expedition could retrieve fresh supplies; he had endeavored to establish good relationships with the Native peoples and he went to efforts to ensure the expedition would be well documented. To that end he hired a photographer named E. O. Beaman. The trip would inaugurate what became known as the fourth of the "Great Surveys." Each of these at times competing projects came under the direction of a different man. Together, between the years of 1867-1878, they were responsible for mapping large areas of the American West.

Hillers was hired to "pull an oar," as another crew member remembered it. But he rapidly became intrigued with Beaman's work. Those were the days before it was possible to make photographic enlargements from negatives. A large photograph could only be produced by a large camera. Additionally, the wet-plate process of taking and developing photographs was unwieldy -- Beaman brought some 1,000 pounds of equipment on the trip, so he was more than happy to let Hillers help carry some of it.

In January of 1872, Powell fired Beaman after the two men had a disagreement. He replaced Beaman with a young assistant photographer from Salt Lake City named James Fennemore. One of Powell's biographers claims Fennemore's most important contribution to the "expedition was his patient instruction of Jack Hillers." Hillers effectively became Fennemore's assistant, at times taking photographs himself. After six months on the trip, Fennemore became too sick to continue. Powell put Hillers in charge of the photographic outfit, and from that point onwards, the young army veteran became the Powell Survey photographer. The professional and personal relationship between the two men would only grow stronger. When the scientific explorer died 30 years later, Hillers would be an honorary pall bearer at the funeral.

In the fall of 1872, under instruction from Powell, Hillers turned his lens from landscapes to people. His first series of images were of the Kaibab Paiutes, who were among the last Native Americans to come into sustained contact with white settlers. Hillers' photographs, though posed, do provide an important record of a way of life that was on the verge of disappearing. In the late 19th century, Indian peoples frequently called photographers "Shadow Catcher." But the Kaibab Paiutes called Hillers "Myself in the Water." It's clear how the naming came about: Just as they saw their images reflected back at them from lake or river water, so the Paiutes' could see themselves reflected in Hillers' photographs.

Following some serious confrontations between whites and Indians in Nevada in 1873, the Bureau of Indian Affairs hired Powell to investigate. His job consisted principally of persuading Indians to settle on reservations, but his interest in ethnography prevailed and he spent much of his time collecting myths, tales and artifacts and compiling vocabularies. He also brought Hillers along to take photographs. Unlike the images Hillers had created the previous year, which were ethnographic documents, Hillers was persuaded to produce pictures that could be sold as stereographs. Some of them were intended to be slightly titillating, depicting women with bare breasts. Others presented distorted versions of reality -- his subjects wearing fake headdresses, for example.

Hillers continued throughout the 1870s to work with Powell. And by the end of the decade he was supervising the photography laboratories for both the Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology. He was also in charge of taking portrait photographs of Indian leaders when they visited Washington, D.C. Over the years he would take hundreds of these pictures. While Powell and Hillers insisted the photographs were of "biographic and historic interest," the attitudes of others at the Bureau of Indian affairs were very different. One Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote, "A Yakima Indian has just reported to this Office, dressed in barbaric splendor.... I think you may be glad to photograph him."

Hillers took his last two photography field trips in the early 1890s. One was to the Yosemite Valley and Kings River regions of California. The other was to the Southeast. By 1893, suffering from severe back pain after more than 20 years of strenuous field work, Hillers confined his photographic activities to the Survey laboratory where he continued to be on the payroll until 1919. When he died six years later, he left behind a remarkable body of work.

Since Hillers had spent his entire professional career working for the government, his images have probably been more widely seen than those of any other 19th century photographer. They have been used in scores of government publications and as illustrations in hundreds of magazines and journals. During his lifetime, they were shown at several international expositions, including ones in Chicago, Paris and Madrid, and they have been included in dozens of museum exhibits. But beyond simply providing his own and future generations with a compelling visual record of the West, Southwest and Southeast, Hillers' "sense of composition and balance" and his wonderful use of light and shadow would, as his biographer points out, help transform American photography from form of record-keeping into an art form.

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