“The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon,” by Roger Naylor.
“Photographers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb were daredevil adventurers … equal parts artist and athlete, a dizzying combination that pushed them toward increasingly creative ways to risk their necks.”
Broad Street proudly presents an excerpt from Roger Naylor’s latest book, in which the author digs into the thrilling tale of turn-of-the-last-century photographers and adventurers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb.
Certainly you know of the Grand Canyon; you may even have been there. But you probably haven’t heard of the two brothers whose photographs of the Canyon and its waters helped shape our perceptions of the place and perpetuate legends of raw splendor and its explorers’ derring-do.
In the early 1900s, the pioneering brothers captured the romance of the United States’ greatest natural wonder on film — while founding a tourism stronghold and a model of eco-tourism that endures till this day. In short, the Kolbs helped to invent tourism as we now know it.
Ellsworth Kolb arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1901; younger brother Emery soon followed. For nearly eight decades, the brothers explored and photographed the Grand Canyon from rim to river. Their story is packed with drama, peril, feuds, near-death experiences, and a cast of the Canyon’s most colorful residents.
Naylor’s book is illustrated with 190 photographs taken by the dashing brothers themselves, a selection of which are presented here.
The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon
Ellsworth and Emery Kolb brothers were rock-climbing, ledge-hopping, mule-chasing, river-running canyoneers. They were rash, nervy, and utterly fearless. They were daredevil adventurers drawn to the earth’s most glorious wound.
Ellsworth Leonardson Kolb was born December 27, 1876, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He would be the first of four sons for Edward and Ella Kolb. Ellsworth would grow up to be an easy-going and rakish rambler nicknamed Ed.
Emery Clifford Kolb came along five years later, on February 15, 1881. More intense and combative than his brother, Emery didn’t have a nickname but was likely called all sorts of things by the folks he riled.
When they arrived at the edge of the Grand Canyon, the boys knew they were home. They were equal parts artist and athlete, a dizzying combination that pushed them toward increasingly creative ways to risk their necks.
The Kolbs dangled from ropes, clung to sheer cliff walls by fingertips, climbed inaccessible summits, ran impassable whitewater rapids, braved the elements, and ventured into unknown wilderness—all for the sake of a photo. Well, a photo and a thrill. Sometimes it was hard to tell which was more important.
And they did it on their own terms. To call them innovators is a gross understatement. They carved out a way of life that didn’t exist, essentially creating tourism photography on the cusp of the twentieth century.
The brothers set up a tent at the head of the Bright Angel Trail and began photographing tourists as they clip-clopped into the canyon on muleback. These pictures of the early domestication of the Canyon combine with more artistic shots to form a record of the early days of eco-tourism.
The Kolbs also became the first independent moviemakers. They produced the first reality show. They invented the selfie. They invented trail running and put whitewater rafting on the map. Before there even was a National Park Service, they taught America how to explore their national parks.
As they did for the tourists, the brothers documented their own adventures and lives as a whole. They recorded every event in photos and on film, just like much of society does today.
They were ahead of their time … by more than a century.
By 1902, the brothers officially resided at the Grand Canyon. They were pioneer settlers, arriving about the time most prospectors had abandoned the idea of reaping mineral riches from the chasm and were instead eyeing the fledgling tourism industry.
The Kolbs set out to make a living with their photography even though everyone they encountered — the government, the railroad, and another tourism empire — tried to stop them.
The boys were groundbreaking photographers, capturing a blend of epic landscapes and intimate portraits under primitive conditions.
Their first darkroom was a blanket hung over a prospector’s hole. Water was obtained first from a muddy cow tank several miles distant and later from the springs at Indian Garden, which involved a nine-mile grueling sprint deep into, and then out of, the Canyon depths.
It was their astonishing journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1911 that made them famous.
With virtually no boating experience, the brothers spent nearly four months in deep river canyons, navigating 365 large rapids and numerous smaller ones.
They not only survived but also shot a moving picture while doing so. That little film would go on to become the longest-running movie in history, featured at their studio in the Canyon itself.
Ellsworth eventually left to chase other horizons, although he returned to the Canyon for the occasional adventure, such as a 1930 trek to find the source of the Canyon’s highest waterfall.
Emery stayed rooted on the rim, raising a family, taking photographs, and showing his movie until his death in 1976. He was the very last of the Grand Canyon pioneers.
The Kolb Studio remains. The wood frame building, originally constructed by the two young novices in 1904 on an eyebrow ledge—affixed to the world’s greatest erosional masterpiece—still hangs on. There’s yet another lesson in tenacity there somewhere.
The original little two-story structure grew and sprawled and now cascades down the cliff face: a jaunty triumph, a sneer at everyone who tried to pry the Kolbs loose. This wooden aerie has hugged the high ramparts, enduring sun and storm, heat and cold, and holding fast in every breath the Canyon has taken for over hundred years.
Now beautifully restored by the Grand Canyon Association and operated as a fund-raising retail outlet and exhibition space, the Kolb Studio perches on the edge of a wilderness of natural towers and temples, pinnacles and promontories — a cathedral of light and stone and sky.
It sits on the shore of an ocean of shadows and shapes. Clouds sweep the porch and ravens swoop past the basement door. Clusters of stars peek in the windows each night and the moon uses the roof for a footrest. The simple rotation of the earth, the rising and setting of the sun, floods the studio with a crescendo of shimmering color, both eloquent and scandalous. Every day. The Kolb Studio retains the entire Grand Canyon as an epic front yard.
Ellsworth and Emery may have been audacious and often foolhardy, but Great Muddy Colorado — they sure knew how to live!
Roger Naylor is a travel writer specializing in Arizona and the Southwest. His work has appeared in USA Today, Go Escape, Budget Travel, Western Art & Architecture, Route 66 Magazine, Elan, Sun Runner, and many more venues. He is also the author of the books Arizona Kicks on Route 66, Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth, and Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers.
The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon is a featured title at Grand Canyon shops; it is also available through internet and traditional book outlets, and through Roger’s website.
Unless otherwise credited, all photographs are courtesy of Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library, Kolb Collection.