Most buildings at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon stand a safe, respectful distance from the world’s most famous chasm. Not so with Kolb Studio. It proudly and precariously juts out over the rim, as if defying gravity itself.
The studio was the home and business headquarters of Pennsylvania-born siblings Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, pioneer photographers who began documenting the canyon and its visitors at the outset of the 20th century. The Craftsman-style structure embodies their daredevil personalities. When not taking snapshots of tourists, the Kolbs documented their adventures in perilous-looking poses (dangling by rope over the canyon) that still give viewers the willies.
“They were great showmen and masters at creating the illusion that taking their photos was more dangerous than it was,” says Miriam Robbins, marketing director of the Grand Canyon Association. “You don’t want to minimize the feats of great magicians, but they used some sleight of hand, too.”
The Kolb brothers’ impressive photos introduced Americans to the Grand Canyon’s grandeur and helped it become a national park in 1919. Their studio, built in stages over two decades starting in 1904, had a future as precarious as its canyon-edge setting. A recent renovation, however, has finally put the studio on firm ground.
The brothers began their business at the head of Bright Angel Trail in 1902, taking snapshots of mule-riding visitors including Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and John Muir descending into the canyon. “The Kolbs’ photos have a lack of subtlety,” photographer James Cowlin says. “They were first and foremost businessmen who found a profitable niche in photographing tourists at the Grand Canyon.” Their images went viral. “Tourists took these photo souvenirs around the world,” Robbins says. “They were like the Facebook of their time and their publicity helped create the national park we know today.”
The brothers operated out of a tent for two years, using pond water to develop their glass slides in a prospecting hole. “Many people entering Kolb Studio still cling to the side away from the steep drop-off for fear they could tumble into the canyon,” Robbins says. The studio’s low ceilings reflect the diminutive stature – both men were 5 feet 4 inches tall – of these photography giants.
The Kolbs instituted an improved, though laborious, photo-developing process. After taking visitors’ photos near the rim, one brother ran ahead of the mule train, almost 5 miles down to Indian Garden. Using spring water, he developed the plate-glass negatives in a darkroom and then hustled up 3,360 feet to sell riders their portraits as they emerged at the South Rim. They did this up to three times a day until water was piped up from Indian Garden in 1930.
This commute was routine for the Kolbs, but some modern hikers have a different perspective. “Captivated by the vista, I flew down the trail, giving little thought to its steepness,” says Robert Hendry, a retired insurance agent. “The hike back up to the South Rim was the longest journey of my life; every step at the end was agony.”
Kolb Studio gained two more residents with Emery’s marriage to Blanche Bender, a former Harvey Girl who became the studio’s hostess and bookkeeper in 1905. Their daughter, Edith, was born two years later.
The studio’s first expansion was in 1915, an auditorium to show film of the brothers’ most famous excursion. The daring duo rafted the entirety of the Colorado River, from Wyoming to California, in 1911-12, becoming the first to capture their journey on film. The 45-minute silent movie brought fame to the brothers. Emery toured the nation with the flick, and in 1914 National Geographic devoted an entire issue to their trip.
The Kolb brothers dissolved their partnership in 1924. The adventurous, easy-going Ellsworth moved to Los Angeles, where he died in 1960, while the intense, business-savvy Emery remained with his family at Kolb Studio.
“Emery ran the projector while speaking to my Ash Fork baseball team in 1953,” says Arizona State Historian Marshall Trimble. “I can’t remember the outcome of our game, but I’ll always remember seeing the Grand Canyon and Kolb Studio.”
The U.S. National Park Service was dubious about retaining Kolb Studio, even after purchasing it in 1962. The deal allowed Kolb and his family to continue to live there. “When I die, the contract ceases,” Emery said in a 1975 interview. “I asked the superintendent of the park what would be done with the studio. ‘Oh, I’ll tear it down,’ he said.” This strained the already contentious relationship between Emery and the park.
The photography pioneer was by then an anachronism, more of an attraction than his decaying, often-spliced film reel. “Tourists came to see not their photos, but to hear of their personal exploits, to measure not the photography but the men,” Bruce Babbitt wrote in his book Grand Canyon: An Anthology. Emery’s death at age 95 ended the world’s longest continuous film engagement and led to the studio’s closure in 1976.
Neither the National Park Service nor visitors knew what to make of the shuttered, three-story building that had grown to 6,000 square feet. After years of neglect, the Grand Canyon Association, a non-profit group that assists the Park Service, took over stewardship. They reopened the studio as a store and gallery in 1990, but after more than a century of use, Kolb Studio was in need of TLC. In 2013, a two-year restoration began with a focus on authenticity, according to Robbins. “We utilized repurposed wood from the building for repairs and matched the original linseed paint,” she says.
To fund the restoration, the Kolbs’ estimated 3.5 million tourist photos proved invaluable. Many donations came from people whose relatives had been photographed by the Kolbs. “Other donors told stories of remembering seeing a grainy black and white movie with an older gentleman narrating it when they visited as kids,” Robbins says.
With the renovation complete, Kolb Studio reopened to illustrate how people lived and worked at the Grand Canyon before it became a national park. Robbins tells of a rope swing that dangled for years next to the Kolb Studio. “The swing became the ‘aha moment’ that helped visitors understand that this studio exists because it was an excellent business location,” she says.
For many, however, Kolb Studio’s allure is more pragmatic. “It’s always wonderful to spot this slightly ramshackle building after 10 hours of hiking because you’re near the finish line,” says Tom Pickrell, a frequent rim-to-rim trekker.
The Kolb brothers would undoubtedly agree.
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