Hangin’ with the Kolb Brothers: Extreme Outdoor Photography

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History changes, yet at its essence, it's always the same. We human beings have a common drive to venture out and push the boundaries of what has been done before—to see what no one else has seen and to build something that will earn our place in time, even after our deaths. History is more than dates and events; it’s full of dynamic characters who collectively drive the plot to where we are today.

The Kolb brothers endured the same struggles as you and I to achieve what they wanted. It’s a familiar story of adventurers determined to monetize their passions so that they could live their dreams. In their story, they confronted a domineering private enterprise, encountered reclusive Native American tribes, and built a legacy that still inspires outdoor enthusiasts to this day.

Anywhere But Here

Ellsworth Kolb was 25 years old when he finally tired of monotonous small town life in Pennsylvania and set out west alone, leaving his reticent and enterprising brother Emery behind. Ellsworth didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but he was certain that his future wasn’t on the family farm. Fueled by an unquenchable wanderlust, he picked up various odd jobs and contracts across the American West, which included anything from operating snow plows at Pikes Peak to shoveling and picking new roads that stretched from Yellowstone to Yosemite.

In the year of 1901, Ellsworth eventually arrived at the Grand Canyon South Rim. He landed a job chopping wood for the local hotel owner and was quickly promoted to porter. Within a few months, he saved enough money to visit his family back in Pittsburgh and share all his experiences.

Ellsworth Rallies Emery

In Ellsworth’s absence, Emery had been living a quiet life back in Pennsylvania. He was tinkering with a newly purchased camera he had bought with his earnings and became quite proficient at photography. With this new skill, he capitalized on a current trend of celluloid medallions and buttons. These novelties made him a bit of spending money, but nothing that would allow him to quit his job and pursue his hobby full time.

When Ellsworth returned home, he raved about his journeys and the new hotel job above Bright Angel Trail. All of this was of minor interest to Emery until his brother spoke of how the guests would venture down the trail into the depths of the canyon on pack mules.

Certainly, they would purchase photos of these unique experiences over worthless knick knacks in the gift shops, he thought. If he returned with Ellsworth, he could finally pursue his passion to be a photographer. It was worth it to leave all the comforts of home behind to have the freedom to completely invest in his own business. Once he secured a temporary job at a mine in the area, Emery packed his bags and left to join his brother.

Photo Credit: Northern Arizona University Colorado Plateau Archives

The Battle for Bright Angel Trail

Unfortunately, by the time he arrived, the mining company had closed. But Emery wasn’t dissuaded; this was the perfect opportunity. Ellsworth negotiated a deal to buy an existing photography shop and all its inventory located in the nearby town of Williams. Their contract gave the brothers only a year to pay for it.

At first, Emery earned most of his money photographing saloon girls in the local bars, but he was determined to expand into the canyon. The brothers attempted to build a studio near the head of Bright Angel Trail; however, Ellsworth's boss worked in conjunction with the powerful Santa Fe Railroad to petition the Forest Reserve officer against the studio. There was no tolerance for competition.

Eventually, the brothers found an ally in Ralph Cameron, a tycoon who was sweeping up questionable mining claims in the surrounding area. The minerals he was seeking proved to be scarce, so Cameron set his sights on exploiting the local tourism market at the rim. He was not in the least bit intimidated by the hotel owner and was a fair match for the Santa Fe Railroad. They battled each other with lawsuits until the government finally assumed control of the park nearly 30 years later.

Photo Credit: Northern Arizona University Colorado Plateau Archives

Humble Beginnings

Under the protection of Cameron, the brothers were free to set up their studio under the condition that they would charge tourists a dollar per mule to access the Bright Angel Trail. Of course, the brothers were expected to forward all the toll back to Cameron, but they were no longer barred from selling their photographs to the guests.

Cameron had the brothers tear down their store in Williams and give him the lumber for a barn, so they were left with a tent as their base shop near the head of the trail. While we’re sure that Emery was pleased with photographing saloon girls all day in town, he was certain that the future was at the rim, and not in a relatively cushy pad in Williams.

The tent made a horrible dark room, so they resourcefully scouted out an abandoned prospecting hole in the cliff walls and drew a curtain over the entrance. There was no running water, and the railroad was certainly not inclined to share. This only inspired more determination. The first wash was in muddy water hauled from cow ponds eleven miles away, and the final wash was with clean water from Indian Gardens located 3,200 feet below the rim. Because there was no electricity, the photos had to be exposed to the sun for a considerable length of time. It was an all-day event.

Every day, Emery would photograph the tourists during their descent and then sprint to the makeshift darkroom. By the time the tourists returned to the top of the rim, he had proofs and an order book ready. By order of the courts, they were required to mail the guests their purchased photos. Meanwhile, Ellsworth would busy himself with the other necessary tasks.

As business boomed, the darkroom had to be moved seven miles from the rim to Indian Gardens, where Emery ran a round trip daily. Eventually, they were able to build a permanent studio on the edge of the rim with a darkroom that still stands today.

Exploring the Canyon

Eager to earn more money and draw attention to their studio, the brothers set their sights on the inaccessible North Rim. As paid guides for hunting trips, they took the cameras on increasingly more dangerous excursions and earned huge profits on the prints they sold upon return. The more they collected on these prints, the more time they could afford to spend deep in the canyon.

The brothers found all kinds of things to photograph that the tourists back on the south rim were eager to see. For example, they photographed the bashful mountain goats by climbing old, rotting ladders that prospectors had nailed to the walls decades before. When they decided a ladder was too unstable, they found finger holds in the wall and climbed around to the next ladder with their heavy, delicate cameras around their necks.

Photo Credit: Northern Arizona University Colorado Plateau Archives

It was on one of these North Rim trips that their most iconic picture was taken. In this photo, Ellsworth ties a rope to a log lodged between two cliff edges and Emery is lowered into the chasm with his camera. The photo Emery took in this picture was used on letterheads, business cards, and advertisements for years thereafter.

The Story Continues...

There is no possible way to describe all the Kolb brothers’ adventures in one short article. To learn more about what they did, we recommend the online book With Wings of an Angel. This suspenseful biography, beautifully written by historian William C. Suran, documents their visits to the Hopi villages to photograph snake dances and a 101-day trip down the rapids of the Colorado River to create a groundbreaking motion picture. Ellsworth, true to character, is attributed with the quote, “If I capsize, I’ll film it first,” which he did on multiple occasions.

Their studio still stands with a gallery of their best work at the Grand Canyon South Rim Historic Village. In the spirit of the Kolb brothers, it seems to teeter precariously on the edge. But don’t worry, it’s securely anchored to the rock up to modern standards. After a tour through the gallery, you can take a run down the same trail that Emery used to develop his photos at Indian Gardens, as this guy did.

Over time, it was the steadfast nature of Emery that solidified their presence in the canyon. He married, had a family, and developed deep roots, while the nomadic Ellsworth came and went as it pleased him. Nevertheless, Ellsworth was the catalyst who pushed for more and more outrageous escapades that drew attention from around the world.

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Stephan Aarstol is an American internet entrepreneur and author of the book The Five Hour Workday, which is based on Tower Paddle Boards' invention of the 5-hour workday in 2015 that would eventually spread the idea to over 10 million people worldwide. Since founding Tower in 2010, it has gone on to become one of America's fastest growing companies and Mark Cuban's best investment in the history of Shark Tank. Tower has diversified into a direct to consumer electric bike company called Tower Electric Bikes, a beachfront event venue called Tower Beach Club, and NoMiddleman.com, where consumers can shop all the world's finest direct to consumer brands from one easy place.