I’m laptopping you from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, at the top of a snowy track descending 4,380 feet to the Colorado River. Papery flakes float down from an infinite, domed sky into a bottomless pink bowl — all visible through the picture window of a small wood-framed studio jutting out from the rock-edge.
In 1901 twenty-five year-old Ellsworth Kolb came to the Grand Canyon from Pennsylvania to work as a bellboy in the Bright Angel Hotel. His younger brother Emery was in nearby Williams, Arizona purchasing a photography business for $425. Emery promptly moved the new venture to the Canyon where he and Ellsworth set up a tent to sell photo souvenirs. Initially they worked on a dirt floor in an abandoned mineshaft and used muddy water from nearby cow ponds for developing. Well-to-do tourists paid a hefty sum of $1 to ride a mule in and out of the canyon on an old Havasupai Indian track, now called the Bright Angel Trail.
With their business hopping, the Kolbs soon leased an old mining claim at the head of the trail and blasted into the rim to build a permanent photography studio. Nestled into the rock, the studio had no electricity, no running water — a picture window overlooked trail and canyon. Next they constructed a darkroom four and a half miles down the trail at Indian Garden — a spot with a fresh water spring they could use for developing. Ellsworth shot the mule-riding parties from the studio window, and then Emery would run the film down the trail to the darkroom. Before the riders could make it back up the trail after their sojourn, Emery had already returned to the studio with their developed photos.
Within a few years Ellsworth and Emery had hiked the inner canyon and documented its secrets. They retraced and filmed the treks of the early surveyors. They rowed and paddled two wooden boats through 11,000 miles of white water and were the first to film it. They even built onto their studio a theatre and projection room so they could show their new picture. In seven decades, over three million visitors were photographed from the Kolb studio. Emery continued to present their film there every day until his death in 1976.
PS: “Yes, the Canyon’s really been my life’s work. We started showing our pictures in the studio April 15, 1915. And so far as we can learn, it’s the longest one-stand show in the world. The way the situation is now, I can live here on the edge of the Canyon in my studio and run the business as long as I live. And when I die, the contract ceases. I asked the superintendent of the park what would be done with the studio. ‘Oh, I’ll tear it down,’ he said. And now there’s a law where they can’t tear down a building that’s over 50 years old. This one is much over 50 years in the front part. This part right here is just 49 years old. So I have another year to live to hold the studio.” (Emery Kolb in 1975, aged 95, the year before his death) “Keep your shop and your shop will keep you.” (Benjamin Franklin)
Esoterica: Twenty years ago Dad and I, with a handful of other heat and thirst enthusiasts, hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. I still remember, at the end of the day’s descent, the icy rapids of the Colorado swirling around our hot ankles. At sunset Dad insisted on taking his sleeping bag to the water’s edge, where he could lie down on the shaly limestone and sleep under the cosmos. A few moments after dusk an unidentifiable sound began — here and there at first, then steady and crescendoing to a deafening roar. Soon Dad was crawling into the tent. “There are 17 million frogs fornicating on my sleeping bag,” he said. We zipped up, leaving the stars to the lovers.
This September will host the 7th annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art, which invites artists worldwide to gather here to paint the Canyon. The results are exhibited annually at the Kolb Studio. I’m looking at last year’s efforts, and taking in the view.
Featured Workshop: Darla Bostick
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.