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  John K. “Jack” Hillers, Photographer

John Karl Hillers was born in Hanover, Germany in 1843, and settled with his family in New York State at the age of nine. During the Civil War, he first served in the New York Naval Brigade, but was later transferred to the U.S. Army. He remained in the military until 1870, when he resigned to travel to San Francisco to care for his ailing brother. During a stopover in Salt Lake City, Mr. Hillers met Major John Wesley Powell, who was then spearheading the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. The two became fast friends, and Major Powell hired Mr. Hillers to serve as oarsman on his Colorado River survey expedition in the spring of 1871. A popular addition to the team, the man nicknamed “Jolly Jack” for his bawdy sense of humor further endeared himself to his employer when he saved Major Powell’s life after his ship, the Emma Dean, capsized.

After predecessors E.O. Beaman and James Fennemore left the Powell expedition for various reasons, Mr. Hillers was promoted to chief photographer. His field photography primarily utilized the wet-plate technique, a daunting task due to the extreme weather conditions, but his experimentation with instant exposures enabled him to produce more than 3,000 negatives of the Colorado River interior within a six-year period (1872-1878). Possessing an instinctive eye for perspective and composition, Mr. Hillers enthusiastically “photographed all the best scenery,” as he joyfully recounted in his personal journal. His double-exposure stereographs were commercially sold by the Washington, D.C. firm Jarvis Company, with the sales divided between the photographer and Major Powell. Artist Thomas Moran created lithographs of these images, which accompanied subsequent articles on the expedition, published in Scribner’s Monthly in 1875-76.

Mr. Hillers remained with Major Powell’s surveying team until 1879, when it became the United States Geological Survey. When Major Powell was named Director, he tapped his favorite photographer to oversee its photographic laboratory. In 1880, Mr. Hiller married Elizabeth Kneip Schievenbeck; eight years’ later, the couple had a son, John Karl Hillers, Jr. During his tenure with the U.S. Geological Survey, Mr. Hillers produced first images of the Paiute, Shoshoni, and Ute Native American tribes, offering an intimate glimpse into their customs and daily rituals. Despite their cultural suspicions of the camera and its prying eye, their trust in Mr. Hillers is evident in their direct eye contact with the camera. Mr. Hiller’s large glass transparencies were exhibited at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893; and in later years, he began colorizing his transparencies, utilizing various non-fading watercolor techniques and also developed a successful protective coating for his wet-collodion images.

By the time Mr. Hillers retired in 1900, he had amassed more than 20,000 negatives for both the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of American Ethnology. He also received several global awards and medals for photographic excellence by France, his native Germany, and Russia. After contracting pneumonia, John K. Hillers died on November 14, 1925. Several of his photographs were featured in Robert Taft’s 1938 volume, Photography and the American Scene; and his diary of the Powell Expedition was published to critical acclaim in 1972. Many of Mr. Hiller’s images presently reside within the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA; the University of California Berkeley Campus’s Bancroft Library; the National Archives in Washington, DC; and comprises part of the American Southwest collection at The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

2001 An American Collection: Works from the Amon Carter Museum by Patricia A. Junker, Barbara McCandless, Jane Myers, John Rohrbach, and Rick Stewart (New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press), p. 98.

2004 Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America's National Parks by Richard A. Grusin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), p. 120.

1983 Mountain Men with Cameras: Photographs From the Western Geological Surveys (Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum), pp. 10-11, 13.

2003 New Mexico Then & Now by William Stone and Jerold G. Widdison (Englewood, CO: Westcliffe Publishers), p. 75.

2009 Painters of Utah's Canyons and Deserts by Donna L. Poulton & Vern G. Swanson (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith), p. 14.

2013 River Notes by Wade Davis (Washington, DC: Island Press), pp. 56, 100-101.

1949 Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. XVII (Salt Lake City, UT: Utah State Historical Society), pp. 491-503.

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2020-05-17 10:09:45

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