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Earth Notes
Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: John Collier Jr.


Can analyzing pictures of Native peoples help others understand the cultures they live in? More than 20 years after the death of John Collier Jr., his fellow anthropologists continue to do just that. And Collier’s textbook on what he called “visual anthropology” is still widely used.

Traditional social scientists rely on interviews and direct observation to investigate cultures. But Collier was different. He spent much of his life in and around Taos, New Mexico, including living for a time at Taos Pueblo.

His father, also named John, was head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the 1930s. Many residents of the Southwest condemn him for unpopular Depression-era livestock reduction programs.

A childhood accident left John Jr. largely deaf. But a friendship with photographer Dorothea Lange prompted him to use a camera as a principal means of interacting with the world.

Later, while working in rural New Mexico on New Deal photography projects, Collier came to believe that snapshots of any kind, even posed, said something important about the cultures of the people depicted. Although Collier remained based in New Mexico, he traveled extensively to South America and Canada for studies of Native peoples through photography.

From what his camera captured nonverbally, Collier felt he drew insights not found through research that relies on the spoken or written word. In photos, he believed, the very energy of a culture might best be understood. 

For a collection of Collier's images archived at the University of New Mexico, click here:

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