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John Muir's Photograph Collection

by Janene Ford

Library/Archives Assistant
Holt-Atherton Library


(Reprinted from The John Muir Newsletter , v.4, no.4, Fall 1994)

It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. John Muir could easily turn out a thousand words, but as far as we know he seldom, if ever, used a camera. However, it is evident that Muir recognized and respected the value of visual images. During his lifetime he amassed a collection of nearly 3,000 photographs, many of which were taken by acquaintances and friends such as William Keith, Charles Lummis, Theodore Lukens, Marion Delany, George Fiske, Herbert W. Gleason, William Herrin, Marion Hooker, Helen L. Jones, C. Hart Merriam, Edward Parsons, and his daughter Helen Muir. Some photographs were retained for personal enjoyment and others for use as illustrations for his writings.

Before snapshot cameras were developed, taking photographs required cumbersome equipment and supplies. Muir's personal lifestyle did not involve packing a lot of excess baggage, as he preferred to carry only the necessities in a sack or a pocket. A pencil, a pad of paper, and with some time by the campfire, and he was able to record his journeys in words and in detailed sketches and drawings. If they had been available in the nineteenth century, Muir might have carried a small lightweight disposable camera.

John Muir's photograph collection contains many portraits and landscape photographs from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As friends and relatives were often far apart geographically, it was the fashion to include portraits with correspondence. This practice, along with Muir's habit of keeping everything, makes it possible for today's researchers to see images of members of Muir's family and his friends. There are many portraits of John Muir and his daughters, but very few of his wife Louie. One can speculate that she did not like to have her picture taken.

Currently, early photographs documenting the Muir-Strentzel home in Martinez are serving a useful purpose. They are being used to help the historic site staff recreate the gardens as they existed in Muir's time. In addition, the photographs of John Muir at his writing desk give us a glimpse into his private domain, complete with plant specimens and stacks of papers and books.

The majority of photographs in the collection are landscape views of California and especially the Sierra Nevada Mountains. These document some of Muir's favorite scenes and haunts. As examples, Hetch Hetchy Valley is shown with it's lush meadowlands, and there are many grand views of mountains and glaciers in Alaska. John J. Reilly, Carleton E. Watkins, Edward Curtis, Andrew P. Hill, Crawford Brothers, William Rulofson, Kilburn Brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, Charles Savage, Shew, Isaiah Taber, Ormsby, Pastridge, and L. Pedrotti are among the many photographers represented in the collection. Muir was known to collect photographs when he traveled. An entry in a journal notes that he "went ashore to buy photographs". There are photographs of Muir's homeland--Scotland--and others from his travels in Africa, Australia, Canada, China, Japan, India, Latin America, and New Zealand.

Portraits of John Muir and photographs of Yosemite are among the most frequently found photographs in the collection, and receive wide use in publications and multimedia productions. Many images have been published in numerous books and in periodicals such as U.S. News and World Report, Sierra, San Diego, Wisconsin Natural Resources, National Geographic, Landmarks, Alaska, Sea Kayaker, Outdoors, Cobblestone, and Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. Such images always include the accompanying credit: Copyright 1984, Muir-Hanna Trust, University of the Pacific Libraries. There are still many photographs in The John Muir Papers which are yet to be published or seen by the general public.

It is interesting to work with publishers and producers of various media productions. The staff of the Holt-Atherton Library work with independent photo researchers and/or directly with the publication editors. Often photographs are selected which researchers have seen in another publication which they have traced back to the John Muir Papers. Most of these contacts come to us by mail or over the telephone. I often ask "Ideally, what are you hoping to find"? They may have a preconceived image which they hope exists. Sometimes a photograph being sought is not in our collection, but we can help them locate and contact the source. Sometimes we find publishers are not familiar with the limitations of nineteenth century photography. Photo- journalism had its birth in the nineteenth century, but the numbers of photographers and the difficulties they encountered limited the images that were produced.

Today we see images of celebrities and news events from numerous camera angles--including shots from helicopters--through television and computer screens or in newspapers and magazines. In the future photo editors will have a better chance of finding "the perfect image" or--with technology's new frontiers--they will be able to create their desired image.

We are often asked for action shots of Muir "in the wild"--climbing over the rocks, up mountainsides, behind a waterfall in the moonlight, clinging to the top of a tree in the wind, shaking hands with Gifford Pinchot--or something in color. When we read Muir's words, these are the images we see, and this is what producers want to show in their documentaries. These are the "have-nots" in the John Muir photograph collection. They do not exist. In some cases publishers may elect to use an artist's rendering to put action and color into their work.

When we are contacted by photo editors, we usually find that deadlines are just days away--particularly for periodicals and videos. To produce a copy print, we need to have a minimum of two weeks to shoot, check proofs, and make enlargements. When we are working with tight deadlines, we try to be accommodating. FAX machines have helped speed up the identification time. We often use Federal Express to get the materials shipped quickly after the copy prints are produced.

John Muir's photograph collection is part of The Microform Edition of The John Muir Papers. There are 53 microfiche with photographs arranged by subject. Copyright is held by the Muir-Hanna Trust. The fiche may be viewed here at the University of the Pacific or at other repositories, or you may request the fiche through Interlibrary Loan.

To publish or to obtain a copy print, you will need to contact:

Holt-Atherton Department of Special Collections
University of the Pacific Libraries
3601 Pacific Avenue
Stockton, CA 95211

or call: (209) 946-2404.



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