MOUNT CARMEL, KANE COUNTY — Nineteeth-century photographer John “Jack” Hillers, who received the Indian name “Myself in the Water” because his camera seemingly caught reflections of its subjects, spent three years photographing Native Americans from Uintah County to as far south as present-day Las Vegas.
“He was trying to record history, and these pieces (on display) are all albumen photographs,” said Paul Bingham, founder and president of the Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts, an organization focused on preserving the Historic Maynard Dixon home and grounds in Mount Carmel, a few miles east of Zion National Park.
“And as you probably know, albumen does not fade,” he added. “They hold forever.”
The Maynard Dixon Home is exhibiting these rare photos, which Hillers took in the 1870s, starting March 15. The collection includes 116 images depicting various indigenous tribes of the American West, all subgroups of the Paiute Tribe, according to Bingham.
The home of Dixon, a well-known 20th-century painter whose work focused on the American West, is a fitting spot for Hillers' photos. The frontiersman Hillers was born in Hanover, Germany, but immigrated to America in 1852, according to getty.edu. After fighting in the American Civil War and continuing service in the army afterward, Hillers then worked as a teamster in Salt Lake City where he met the explorer, geologist and geographer John Wesley Powell.
Like Hillers, Powell was a member of the Union Army, but Powell was also a noted scientist. According to the United States Geological Survey, in 1869, well after the war, Powell led the famous Powell Geographic Expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. During his second expedition, which followed much the same paths, Hillers was among the crew. Powell was interested not only in the geology of the Colorado River but also in the natives who lived nearby.
Hillers was a boatsman and assistant to E.O. Beaman, the main photographer in Powell’s group, Bingham said. Exiting the Colorado River, the expedition team returned to Kanab in 1872, where the Kaibab Paiute Tribe had settled, and wintered there. Following a dispute with Powell around this time, Beaman left the survey, leaving Hillers in charge.
“It's one of those things that very few people know in this region that John Wesley Powell, Jack Hillers and even Thomas Moran, the great American British painter, spent a great deal of time in,” Bingham said.
According to an essay written by Utah Historian Nelson B. Wadsworth, which accompanies the exhibit, the Native Americans were reluctant to be photographed. Powell recruited the help of a southern Utah Mormon leader named Jacob Hamblin (also known as the “Buckskin Apostle”), who reassured them of the camera and allowed the team to successfully photograph the tribes.
According to Bingham, it’s not certain how many sets of these photos still exist or who might have them, mentioning that, possibly, the only other such lasting collection might be at the Smithsonian.
The exhibit's pictures are roughly 5 by 4 inches each, printed in a lunette shape and still well-preserved. They've also been framed in archival material and fastened in glass to allow visitors to see both sides of the photo (including the author’s original label).
According to Wadsworth’s essay, photographers working at this time used a method known as the collodion wet plate system to make photos. This required making a glass sheet negative (while the plate was still wet and sensitized) and placing it in a wooden frame atop a chemically treated, dry albumen (egg whites) print for transfer. The image was then fixed in a basic solution until primed and then glued to a card with the labels written on the back. All of the equipment used in the photography, which included the camera, a portable darkroom (usually a tent), tripods and the glass plates, weighed roughly 1,000 pounds.
Originally, Bingham said, “They were given to (Congress) as a proposal to get more funding for more geographic travel and mapping in the West that Powell was trying to do. He wanted to prove to the people in Congress that there were indeed people here that were a little bit different than some of the rest of the world … as far as Native Americans were concerned.”Comment on this story
Bingham hopes the remarkable photos and the exhibition revenue will help with the preservation and management of the roughly 50-acre Dixon estate, which includes the house Dixon built. Besides the exhibit, the Thunderbird Foundation offers tours and workshops, as well as a retreat for artists, according to the Visit Southern Utah website.
“Considering the enormity of carrying 1,000 pounds of equipment and erecting tents on every location as darkrooms,” Bingham said, “to make imagery such as this is truly inspiring.”
If you go …
What: “John Jack Hillers: Utah Tribes — An Exhibition”
Where: Maynard Dixon Home and Studio, 2200 S. State, Mount Carmel
When: March 15-ongoing
How much: $5