By Dave Lewis

Last week, we got to know Jack Hillers in 1871 as he worked as a laborer on John Wesley Powell’s second Colorado River expedition.  When they finally set out through the Grand Canyon in 1872, Hillers had graduated to expedition photographer.

He had a natural gift, beginning with the complicated chemistry and techniques of “wet plate” photography.   The process had nine steps:   (1) coat a glass plate with a chemical mix called “collodion,” (2) dip the plate in a solution of silver nitrate, (3) insert the plate in the camera, (4) expose the plate by removing the lens cap — for just the right length of time (essentially taking the picture), (5) remove the plate from the camera and pour on the chemical developer, (6) place the plate in a tray of fixing solution, (7) wash the plate and allow it to dry, then seal and protect it with a coat of varnish, (8) prepare a sheet of paper with several chemical washes, and  (9) lay the prepared paper in a frame, place the glass plate negative over it in direct sunlight, and wait for the sunlight to print the photograph.  Steps 1 through 4 had to be completed in less than ten minutes — before the collodion dried; the entire process could take an hour.  An afternoon of hard work might produce three photographs.  But, a well-made and carefully-protected glass plate negative could produce unlimited copies.  [For a description of the process, see:  www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eastman/sfeature.]  This helps explain why the expedition was carrying a thousand pounds of photographic gear.

Once Hillers mastered the technical process, setting up a shot was the next challenge.  Here, too, he excelled.  He had an eye for selecting and framing a subject and balancing light and shadow to the best effect.  A biographer said:  “Perfection of composition and light, combined with an appreciation of the pure simplicity of the West elevates Hillers’s work from mere recording to an art form.”

In 1872, Hillers took dozens of great photographs in the Grand Canyon on his trip with Powell.  Some, he admitted, “were not up to the mark . . .  but I think we done middling for Greenhorns.”

In 1873, he returned to the Grand Canyon area with Powell and artist Thomas Moran, whom Powell had recruited to illustrate the written account of his exploits.  Powell sent Hillers back again in 1880 to work with Clarence Dutton on a book of Grand Canyon area science (to which Moran also contributed artwork).  Jack Hillers was the indispensable man in all of these endeavors.  Many of Hillers’s photographs stood on their own in these publications.  Others, however, were used by Moran to create paintings or etchings of places he had never seen.  Moran never went on a trip down the Colorado; he never saw Lava Falls.  “Lava Falls,” however, is one of Moran’s most dramatic etchings — based on a Hillers photograph.

Beyond landscapes, Hillers also had a talent for portrait photography — his first images (1872) were of the Kaibab Paiutes.  As noted in a PBS documentary, these people “. . . were among the last Native Americans to come into sustained contact with white settlers.  Hillers’s photographs . . .  provide an important record of a way of life that was on the verge of disappearing.”   In 1879, he was photographer for a Smithsonian trip to Zuni and other Southwestern pueblos — “the first specifically anthropological expedition in America.”  He is credited with more than 20,000 images taken for the Bureau of Ethnology.

The Native people he encountered generally were not familiar with photography.  They were, however, accustomed to seeing their images reflected in pools of water.  Their reaction upon seeing Hillers’s photographs of themselves was:  “that’s me in the water.”  Thus, Jack Hillers acquired the charming nickname “Myself in the Water.”

Based on a chance meeting with Powell in 1871, Hillers went on to a 30-year career as one of the most prolific and influential photographers of the American West.  He followed Powell back and forth between the US Geologic Survey (USGS) and the Bureau of Ethnology.  He retired from field work in 1900, at the age of 57, but continued to take photographs occasionally for USGS for another 20 years.  He died in 1925 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  For a broad selection of his work, go to www.sciencebase.gov  and enter “Hillers” in the search field.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.