First constructed in 1904, the Kolb Studio, a national historic landmark, served as home, photography, studio, and theater for the Kolb brothers’ public slide shows and films. The Kolb brothers built their home and studio perched dramatically on the edge of the South Rim at the head of the Bright Angel Trail.
The significance of the Kolb studio lies in its location at the head of the Bright Angel Trail, a major route into the Grand Canyon. It is also important as the site of the first permanent commercial photographers’ studio at the canyon and one of the earliest commercial tourist businesses there. More broadly, this site and the Kolb family who lived and worked here plays an important role in national park history and tourism through the American West.
The Kolb brothers operated a successful photography studio here at the rim of the Grand Canyon for over 75 years and, in the process, shaped our nation’s view of what a national park looks like and what people do when they visit one of the most renowned scenic, historical, and cultural parks in the United States.
The Kolb brothers gave us some of our most iconic images of America at play. In addition to being a photographic studio, a showcase for locally harvested photographs of the national park, and a landmark on the edge of the canyon, this site was also home to some of the earliest Euro-American settlers at the canyon.
The women and men who occupied this cabin also ran one of the most successful commercial studios in the American West and gave us some of our most memorable early photographs of early tourists at the Grand Canyon. Only thirty-two years after John Wesley Powell and his expedition floated down the Colorado River on his second trip through the Grand Canyon, the Kolb brothers set up their photographic studio.
The Kolb brothers were pioneering frontier photographers. Ellsworth and Emery Kolb made an agreement with early Grand Canyon entrepreneur Ralph Cameron to build their studio on one of his mining claims. Staking their base on the very rim of the Grand Canyon and, strategically, at the head of the Bright Angel Toll Road, the Kolb brothers began a very profitable and adventuresome career as commercial photographers. In fact, they were among the earliest of a genre of photographers who specialized in national park tourism.
In the early days they developed film using some of the only available water in this arid western location—in a muddy cow pond near their studio. Through their careers they moved beyond these humble beginnings and developed photographic methods and techniques more suited to the canyon’s unique and challenging environment. Through more than a few daredevil adventures, they produced some the earliest views of the inner recesses of the Grand Canyon. The brothers lived through long, cold canyon winters, hot summers, and made do with few amenities (running water and electricity were late comers to the cabin).
Today, you can visit this historic site in the South Rim Historic District to get a taste of what it was like to live and work on the brink of grandeur in Grand Canyon National Park.
The story of the Kolb brothers’ studio is one of strong characters, persistence in the face of adversity, and ingenuity. Ellsworth Kolb arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1901 at the age of 25 after leaving his home in Pennsylvania five years earlier for points west. Ellsworth worked chopping wood and, later, as a porter at one of the few lodging establishments at the canyon—the Bright Angel Hotel. He saw promise in this place a a year later his younger brother, Emery, followed Ellsworth to the canyon.
The Kolb brothers set up their first studio in 1904 in a modest tent cabin beside Ralph Cameron’s early canyon hotel. The base of their business consisted of photographing tourists on mules as they rode down the canyon trails. A popular activity at the park, this kept the Kolb brothers in business but photographing and developing these prints took a little ingenuity. Their first tent studio had a dirt floor and lacked running water so they used the nearest water in this arid land—cattle ponds—sometimes as far as eight miles away in a depression known as Rain Tank.
The brothers were also inventive with another essential ingredient to photography—a dark room to develop their prints. Mining was common place in the early days of the park. The brothers used the remains of the waning mining industry to their advantage by employing a nearby abandoned mine shaft for a dark room.
The Kolb brothers’ business fared better the next year when they made a key deal with a canyon entrepreneur. The brothers negotiated with Ralph Cameron, a contentious early entrepreneur in the park, to build a small frame cabin on a mining claim of Cameron’s near the canyon’s edge.
This was quite a strategic and economic boon for the brothers’ photography business but it came at a price. In exchange for building on one of Ralph Cameron’s tightly held mining claims, the brothers agreed to charge a one dollar toll per head of livestock for groups heading down the canyon trail, paid to Ralph Cameron. It was quite a hefty charge for those days but better than walking the trail – an unthinkable option for most tourists.
Perched on the canyon’s rim, the new Kolb Studio afforded a more permanent building than the tent but the young photographers still had many challenges ahead.
In 1905 Emery married Blanche Bender and she moved to the Kolb brothers’ slight cabin and photographer’s studio on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Living at the cabin must have been difficult at that time; there was no running water or electricity, the summers were brief but hot and the winters long and cold. However, the Kolbs persisted and flourished. In 1908, Blanche gave birth to Edith Kolb, the only child the couple had and, for many years, the only Anglo child living at Grand Canyon Village. Blanche pitched in with the photography business as well by operating a gift shop at the studio and tending to the bookkeeping. She and Edith also traveled with the brothers on many of their picture taking adventures into the canyon by foot and by mule.
One of the most inventive adaptations that the Kolb brothers made to their photography business in the rough environs of the Grand Canyon later became a trademark of their ingenuity. They did not have running water in the cabin for developing film but they soon found an alternative to the murky cattle ponds of the early tent studio. In 1906, the brothers built a darkroom studio near Indian Garden, about four and a half miles down the Bright Angel Trail and 3,000 feet below the canyon’s rim. This new darkroom afforded a close spot to a constant source of clean water—a spring.
The studio grew and enlarged several times over the years. In 1915, the brothers expanded the studio to include an auditorium on the east end of the building. This addition not only afforded the photographers more workspace, it also gave them a venue to show their own motion picture—the first movie filmed of a trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, rowed and filmed entirely by the two brothers in the witner of 1911-1912. After a tour around the United States, the brothers brought the movie back to the Grand Canyon where they showed it every day from 1915 to 1976, with narration by Emery himself until 1932. The movie still holds the title of the longest continually running movie in United States history.
The studio expanded in fits and starts over the years but in 1926 the final major additions were made to the structure. This expansion included a larger auditorium to hold more visitors wishing to see their river running movie as well as more space for their craft including a darkroom and a lab.
“Ingenuity and a Coin Toss”
With the death of Emery Kolb in 1976, the National Park Service acquired the five story, twenty-three room historic studio. In the 1990s, the Grand Canyon Association renovated the building to its current state as a bookstore and gallery.
The Kolb Studio is now on the National Register of Historic Places thereby preserving and commemorating the Kolb brothers, the impact of their photography of the promotion of the park and the resilience of this historic structure perched on the brink of the canyon, overlooking the Bright Angel Trail, the Tonto Platform, and the Bright Angel Canyon onward to the north side of the Colorado River.
The Kolb brothers were active participants in the promotion of the Grand Canyon to national audiences. Through their tireless efforts to find and photograph visitors, viewpoints, and areas of the park, the brothers aided in the effort to firmly establish Grand Canyon National Park as a site of national pride and an icon for parks and wilderness areas worldwide.
Perhaps the greatest photographic legacies of the brothers are the multitude of images of tourists riding mule down the Bright Angel Trail. These prints, intended as mementos for the tourists of their adventures in the canyon, now serve as documentation to early tourism in the canyon, the popularity and long history of mule riding in the canyon, and serve as a testament to the Kolb brothers prolific photography business. Taking and developing these images was no short order. The process began as one of the brothers took photographs of the mule riders as they descended the trail. Then, Emery would run the film down the trail (often passing the mule riders) to Indian Garden springs 3,000 feet below the canyon’s rim where clear water made for better processing. Before the mule riders began their long journey up the canyon’s walls, Emery would quickly ascend the trail and be there waiting at the top to sell them their photographs as souvenirs of their long day in the saddle.
These purveyors of popular images did not limit their work to portraits of weary (or overly zealous) tourists on mules. The brothers needed additional material to sell to the tourists who came in increasing numbers to the Grand Canyon for a view into the great chasm. Combining their desire for new materials to sell with their adventuresome spirits, the two brothers hiked and photographed much of the inner canyon where few tourists of the day traveled. During one of their more arduous journeys in the inner canyon, the brothers traced the journey of one of the Great Surveys of the West lead by Major John Wesley Powell. On and off from 1911 to 1912, the Kolb brothers rowed, heaved, and bobbed along in two wooden boats through 11,000 miles of the Green and Colorado Rivers on some of the most daunting whitewater in the United States.
The brothers made history in the Grand Canyon and around the national during this trip by taking the first motion picture of river running down the Colorado River. They toured across the continent showing and narrating the film to eager audiences upon their return.
After the Kolbs traveled about the country showing their river running film, they returned to the Grand Canyon’s south rim and showed the film on a daily basis in the auditorium of their studio and home. National Geographic expanded the popularity of the Kolb brothers, their amazing feats, and the Grand Canyon by dedicating 85 pages of the magazine’s August 1914 issue to the Kolb brothers’ trip down the Colorado River.
Ellsworth wrote “Through the Grand Canyon from Wyoming to Mexico” which became a popular and widely dispersed account of their trip in 1914. American audiences across the country were eager to see images of western landscapes and read about the people who explored them. The Kolb brothers used their adventures in the canyon to promote their studio and their services as guides.
Not many years passed, though, before the canyon was too small to accommodate these larger than life personalities. Emery and Ellsworth had a falling out over the best way to run their business. Their differences came down to a coin toss in 1913 that left Emery the winner of the business and studio at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Some researchers believe the “coin toss” is apocryphal, but in any case, Ellsworth did leave in 1913. The two brothers later signed an agreement that Emery would pay Ellsworth $150/month for the rest of Ellsworth’s life (he died in 1960). The brothers remained on good terms and Ellsworth occasionally visited the canyon from his new home in Los Angeles, California, but Emery remained as the prime owner and operator of the studio for the next sixty years.
As the years passed and the daring of entering the canyon and running its rapids waned, visitors may have lost interest in the “Grand Canyon Film” of the Kolb brothers’ 1911-1912 trip through the canyon and its aging narrator. Not so.
Audiences continued to pack into the auditorium on a daily basis for many years to come. They came mostly to see Emery, this living Grand Canyon pioneer who still introduced the film even in his advanced years, to see this man who had carved his own part of Grand Canyon history, to see a walking legend—a self-proclaimed photographic explorer.
By the time of his death in 1976, Emery had photographed more than 3 million tourists in the Grand Canyon and millions of visitors to the canyon saw the Grand Canyon Film in the Kolb Studio perched on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Written By Yolonda Youngs
- Anderson, Michael. Living at the Edge: Explorers, Exploiters and Settlers of the Grand Canyon Region. GCA, 1998
- Anderson, Michael. Along the Rim: A Guide to Grand Canyon’s South Rim from Hermit’s Rest to Desert View. GCA, 2001
- Emery Kolb Collection, Northern Arizona University, Cline Library Special Collections, Flagstaff, AZ.
- Stampoulos, Linda L. Visiting the Grand Canyon: Views of Early Tourism. Images of America Series. Arcadia Publishing 2004.
- Suran, William C. The Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon. GCA, 1991