Lummis Takes Up Photography

Charles Lummis had a tempestuous first marriage to a smart and resourceful woman named Dorothea, one of the first female doctors to hang her shingle in Los Angeles. She adored him despite his objectionable habits, which included abandoning her for weeks at a time while he practically lived in the Los Angeles Times office, where he worked as many as 18 hours a day between reporting trips out of town.

Some of their best times together came when Dorothea traveled with him on an annual excursion each fall to his favorite haunts in New Mexico. On those trips, Lummis would write series of stories for the Times that were reminiscent of the dispatches from his famous “tramp across the continent” two years earlier. Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis ran the stories in the paper, billed as “the adventures of Lum and Doc” in “Injun Country.”

The following excerpts from American Character describe how he became a photographer on the “Lum and Doc” adventure of 1886, a few months after he got his first camera, and later how he, with lots of help from his second wife, Eve, turned photography into a business while they were living in Isleta.

When Lum and Doc left for their tour of New Mexico in October of 1886, he was carrying a device that he had purchased just a few months earlier and was still learning how to use: a camera. “One of the regrets of my lengthy paseo of two years ago was my lack of ability to bring away pictorial reminiscences of the countless places along the road,” Lummis wrote

“It was always a pang to me, and at times a most cactus-pointed one. One little picture of the faithful dog that shared my hard bed and scanty board across the Rockies, through the snows of the southwestern mountains, and the fearful heat and thirst of Arizona’s deserts–one poor little dingy likeness would be dearer to me than the rarest work of art.”

Sun Dance at Cochiti Pueblo, photographed by Lummis in 1888. Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, no. N33810.

Sun Dance at Cochiti Pueblo, photographed by Lummis in 1888. Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, N33810.

To prevent any further regrets of that sort, he had decided to “learn light-writing–the expressive name which photography has borrowed from a language that knew nothing of these later wonders.” He took ninety dry plates with him on that trip and used up all but three.

By the time of his 1887 “Lum and Doc” adventure, Lummis had mastered the technical skills of photography and was working on the trickier art of snapping pictures of unwilling subjects. Writing from Acoma, he observed, “For these Pueblo towns one should have a lens which will focus itself, adjust a plate and make the exposure in about the millionth part of a second. The Pueblos share the superstition of the Navajos about pictures; and my appearance around a corner with the tripod and camera was the signal for such a scamper as nothing else short of a pack of wolves would be likely to cause. Children flew, women ran, and the most dignified men got an immediate ‘move’ on them. We had to be content with photographing such buildings as we desired, and then, planting the camera in some obscure corner, focusing it down the street and waiting for the unwary to happen along.”

Freelance Photojournalist

In 1888, Lummis was felled by paralysis at least in part because of overwork at the Los Angeles Times. He went to New Mexico to recuperate, expecting that he would keep his job at the Times. But Otis had other ideas, removing him from the payroll but agreeing to publish an occasional letter for $1.50 each. Lummis was devastated. But ultimately that setback put him on a promising new path to a new career in which he combined his skills as a writer with his new hobby of photography.

If Otis hadn’t kicked him out of the nest, he surmised in his memoir, “I would probably now be a superannuated hack on the L.A. Times.” Instead, left to fend for himself in the wilds of New Mexico, he was forced to piece together a new career that turned out to be much better suited for him–with his eclectic interests and itinerant lifestyle–than a staff position at a newspaper. He became a remarkably prolific freelance photojournalist–one of the pioneers of the field.

Acoma and the San Esteban del Rey Mission (1629), photographed by Lummis in 1891. Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, no. N24466.

Acoma and the San Esteban del Rey Mission (1629), photographed by Lummis in 1891 (detail in header). Courtesy of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, N24466.

Lummis had quickly recognized photography’s potential both for preserving history and for helping him sell his written work. Recent advances in technology paved the way for his photographic explorations of New Mexico. The dry plate process perfected over the previous decade liberated photographers from the need to haul around a portable darkroom, as Mathew Brady had been forced to do during the Civil War. Wet-plate negatives had to be prepared just before they were exposed and the image had to be fixed immediately after. Dry-plate negatives, in contrast, could be purchased ready-made in bulk and stored for months. It took one-tenth as much light to expose them, which gave photographers a much wider range of shutter speeds. Brady couldn’t venture more than several hundred yards from roads where his darkroom wagon could travel and had to struggle to get a crisp exposure of a corpse. A quarter century later, the technology had advanced to the point were Lummis could go practically anywhere he cared to lug his Dallmeyer lens, camera and tripod, a kit that tipped the scales at mere forty pounds. With a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second, he could capture reasonably sharp action shots of events such as the Hopi Snake Dance.

Making Cyanotypes

To make prints, Lummis favored the cyanotype, or blueprint technique. Still used today to reproduce architectural plans, it was the simplest, cheapest, quickest, most forgiving way to turn negatives into positive images. The technique was tolerant of the impurities in New Mexican well water. And sensitive only to sustained exposure to direct sunlight, the paper could easily be prepared in the dim light of an adobe room.

In New Mexico, he photographed the same people and places he was writing about and began submitting portfolios of prints with many of his manuscripts. The photographs eventually began to help him makes big sales and charge premium prices. Printing technology didn’t yet permit affordable reproduction of photographs in newspapers and magazines, but publications commissioned artists to make facsimile engravings and published them.

Lummis taught his second wife, Eve, how to make blueprints. When the two of them were living together in the pueblo of Isleta, they turned their print-making into a thriving cottage industry, thanks to a fortuitous visit by a Los Angeles based curio dealer.

A new opportunity–one that Lummis had been striving to break into from his first months of residence in New Mexico–began to come to fruition in September of 1891. Wilbur Campbell, a prominent Los Angeles-based dealer in pioneer curios, dropped by Isleta to visit the famous correspondent.    The two had met previously when Lummis, on one of his trips to Los Angeles had stopped in at Campbell’s store to show him blue-prints of some of the Indian blankets, pots and other artifacts that Lummis said he could procure. It turned out that Campell was as interested in the prints as he was in the artifacts.

As photographic compositions they were amateurish. But the subject matter was exotic and the prints–remarkably crisp, rendered in shades of blue–had a haunting quality. On his visit to Isleta, Campbell checked out the crude but effective photographic production line that Lummis had rigged in his adobe and in the courtyard in front. Over time, Campbell would buy thousands of the postcard-sized prints of the pueblos, the Penitente crucifixion ritual, and other Southwestern scenes, which Charlie and especially Eve produced for a small profit. In April 1892, Lummis noted in his diary that he and Eve had made 19,526 blueprints in New Mexico to date.