Kolb Brothers


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The intrepid Kolb brothers – Emery and Ellsworth – moved to Arizona at the turn of the 20th century and established the Grand Canyon's first successful photography business. In 1911 they ran the Colorado River and brought back the first "motion pictures" of the Canyon the world had ever seen. For the next 75 years, the brothers produced a body of work that recorded the better part of a remarkable century.


This is the story of two of the luckiest, most industrious, and most intrepid brothers ever to set up shop in the great state of Arizona . Emery and Ellsworth Kolb established and ran a photography business on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon that endured and prospered from 1903 until 1976. Along the way, they produced a body of work that may well last for ages. In 1911, they ran the Colorado from Wyoming to Mexico and brought back the first motion pictures of it the world had ever seen. Emery immediately took the show on the road. He lectured in Los Angeles , then went back east. He made it onto the stage of the Carnegie music hall, and the lecture was a hit. Movies were a wonder then, and this one played to packed houses wherever it went. In Chicago , emery caught the eye of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell and his son-in-law, Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor, the head of the National Geographic Society. This led to almost an entire issue of the magazine being devoted to the big trip. Ellsworth returned alone to Needles the following year, bought a boat, and caught the spring flood down to the ocean in Mexico . Later that same year, he wrote a wonderful book, which is still in print today, about the whole adventure. After the big trip, the Kolb Brothers expanded their studio and added a small theater in order to show their movie at the Canyon. Emery hung in at the studio through thick and thin, often against long odds, and helped support his entire extended family with the proceeds. Meanwhile, he photographed the world as it grew up around him. The untamed frontier that the Kolb brothers faced when they launched the big trip gradually gave way to the tenacious resolve and ingenuity of their generation. Did Emery and Ellsworth ever realize how important each had been to the other? That's hard to say. It's hard to say what pioneering traits were most responsible for the Kolb brothers' success. Was it Ellsworth's sense of adventure or Emery's feisty competence? If not for Ellsworth, Emery might never have left Pittsburgh . If not for Emery, Ellsworth might have drowned, more than once. In 1961, emery lost Ellsworth through a stroke at age 83. But Emery hung in there and kept the business going another 15 years. In 1975, at the age of 95, he talked about it in a radio interview:

Emery Kolb:
Yes, the Canyon's really been my life's work. We started showing our pictures in the studio April 15, 19 15. And so far as we can learn, it's the longest one-stand show in the world. The way the situation is now, I can live here on the edge of the Canyon in my studio and run the business as long as I live. And when I die, the contract ceases. I asked the superintendent of the park what would be done with the studio. "Oh, I'll tear it down," he said. And now there's a law where they can't tear down a building that's over 50 years old. This one is much over 50 years in the front part. This part right here is just 49 years old. So I have another year to live to hold the studio.

Emery made it, not by much. But today, decades later, Kolb's studio is well protected by the National Park Service and the National Historic Register. The studio still houses a friendly gift shop full of Canyon artwork. The theater has been converted to a space for traveling exhibits. The Kolb brothers' films and photos are still displayed. In its own way, the longest one-stand show still goes on.