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The Frederick Monsen Ethnographic Indian Photographs
photCL 312  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Overview of the Collection
  • Access
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Note
  • Scope and Content
  • Bibliography
  • Arrangement
  • Related Material
  • Indexing Terms

  • Overview of the Collection

    Title: The Frederick Monsen Ethnographic Indian Photographs
    Dates: approximately 1886-1911
    Collection Number: photCL 312
    Creator: Monsen, Frederick, 1865-1929.
    Extent: 373 photographs in 15 oversized portfolio boxes: prints (approx. 11 x 14 inches) on oversize mounts (approx. 21 x 26 inches). Also includes 1 box of ephemera.
    Repository: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
    1151 Oxford Road
    San Marino, California 91108
    Phone: (626) 405-2191
    Email: reference@huntington.org
    URL: http://www.huntington.org
    Abstract: This set of photographs, titled “The Frederick Monsen Ethnographic Indian Photographs” by the photographer Monsen, focuses on Native Americans of the Southwest in mostly candid photographs taken in Pueblo communities, approx. 1886-1911. Views include portraits, ceremonies, dances, pueblos, livestock and scenes of daily activities. A smaller portion of the collection consists of landscapes, cliff-dwellings, ruins, gold miners, wagons and scenes of pioneer life in the West.
    Language of Material: The records are in English.
    Finding aid last updated on November 15, 2013.


    Open to qualified researchers by prior application through the Reader Services Department. For more information, contact Reader Services.

    Administrative Information

    Publication Rights

    The Huntington Library does not require that researchers request permission to quote from or publish images of this material, nor does it charge fees for such activities. The responsibility for identifying the copyright holder, if there is one, and obtaining necessary permissions rests with the researcher.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], The Frederick Monsen Ethnographic Indian Photographs, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.


    Purchased by Henry E. Huntington from Frederick Monsen, 1923. Correspondence from Monsen, dated Feb. 22, 1925, indicates he was still making prints for the Huntington Library two years after the official acquisition: “Arrived here a week ago and am now busy making prints for the Albums. I have selected the finest of my negatives for enlarging and results are most satisfactory.” Monsen and Huntington may have become acquainted as early as 1909; they were both elected as Fellows to the American Geographical Society in that year.

    Note on Attribution

    Occasionally problems of attribution arise with Monsen’s photographs, mostly stemming from the loss of his negatives in the 1906 earthquake. Monsen borrowed back some of his own prints, and prints and negatives of friends, to supplement his collection. He and A. C. Vroman frequently exchanged negatives and prints. Three photographs in this collection have been positively identified as prints made from Vroman’s original negatives, and it is likely there are others by Vroman, or possibly P. G. Gates or Edward Kemp. (Faris, p. 153).

    Biographical Note

    Frederick I. Monsen was born in Bergen, Norway, in 1865, and emigrated to Utah Territory with his parents in 1868. He grew up in the West, where his adventurous spirit and artistic talents drew him to the explorations and surveys taking place there in the late 19th century. He worked variously as an artist, topographer, writer and photographer, and spent the later years of his life as a lecturer and expedition leader.
    Monsen learned photography as a teenager, when he and his father worked as a photographic team for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He began joining U.S. Geographical Surveys, sometimes informally, in the late 1880s. In 1889, he took over for the injured official photographer, Franklin Nims, on the Brown-Stanton Railway survey of the Colorado River. He joined the Salton Sea Expedition in 1891, and spent six months independently exploring Death Valley and Baja California in 1893. He also went on explorations to Alaska, the Yukon, Mexico and Central and South America. But the area he repeatedly visited and made his specialty was the Southwest, and he developed a deep personal interest in the Native Americans of the area. Like several other Western photographers in the late 19th and early 20th century, Monsen wished to document the lives of Native Americans before their way of life had been irrevocably altered. He recurrently lived and worked in the Desert Southwest from the mid-1880s until his death in 1929. Many of his earliest trips were taken with close friend and fellow Pasadena photographer A. C. Vroman. They were known to sometimes photograph the same subject, and would often work in the darkroom together on their return.
    Monsen lost more than 10,000 negatives and prints – the bulk of his life’s work – in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Two trunks of lantern slides and prints were salvaged, and he was able to reconstruct parts of his collection from prints he had sold or given to others. He also borrowed some negatives from Vroman to fill in his collection for his lectures. For this reason, attribution for some photographs has been difficult – see “Note on Attribution,” below.
    In the late 19th century, when Kodak introduced handheld box cameras and roll and cartridge film, Monsen found he preferred the small cameras, and began to use them regularly. Carrying a discreet pocket Kodak camera on his belt, he could capture his Indian subjects in more naturalistic and spontaneous moments, avoiding the “stiff, posed, time exposed attempt at dramatic effect that was neither … truth or art.” He was also pleased with the enlargements he made from the smaller 3 ¼” x 4 ¼” film, that had “atmosphere, perspective, and a certain quality of light and shade I had never seen in the others.” (With a Kodak In the Land of the Navajo)
    In 1907, “The Frederick Monsen Ethnographic Indian Photographs,” an exhibit of enlarged photographic prints of the Indians and scenery of the Southwest, was shown at the U.S. National Museum, Washington, D.C.; the American Museum of Natural History; and The Explorers' Club, New York City. In that same year, The Craftsman magazine published a series of writings and photographs by Monsen, describing his experiences with the Hopi people.
    Monsen was elected as a Fellow to the distinguished Royal Geographical Society in 1910. By the 1920s, he was a seasoned and popular explorer-lecturer, known for his striking colored lantern slides of the Southwest. Monsen died in 1929, of pneumonia, in Pasadena, at age 64.

    Scope and Content

    This set of 373 photographs by the photographer Frederick Monsen focuses on Native Americans of the Southwest in mostly candid photographs taken in Pueblo communities from approximately 1886 to 1911. Most of the photographs in this collection are enlargements made from 3 ¼” x 4 ¼” Kodak roll or cartridge film; Monsen preferred using the small Kodak cameras so he could quickly capture natural moments. There are also some posed portraits, landscapes and others that were possibly taken with larger-format cameras, particularly those taken on the Brown-Stanton survey of 1889. Some photographs were made by Monsen while he was with U. S. Geological Surveys, and others during his own photography trips.
    The majority of Native Americans pictured are Hopi and Navajo, but there are also Paiute, Apache, and Pueblo Indians. There are a few views of Mojave Indians of Southern California, and natives of Baja, Mexico. There are several views of Indian children, shown with and without clothes, in their daily activities.
    Scenes of non-Indian Western life include men in covered wagons on trails, gold prospectors and stagecoaches. There are many artistic landscape views of canyons, buttes and mesas; Death Valley; salt beds; ancient ruins; cactus and other desert plants.
    Unusual subjects of note are three photographs of skeletons in the deserts of Arizona and one view of the covered bodies of prospectors being carried on burros.
    The prints are all signed by Monsen and have typed or handwritten captions on the back, written by Monsen. The prints in the collection appear to have been made over a period of years – some have Monsen’s printed labels on the back, some have blank labels, or none; signatures are in both ink and pencil; some have copyright symbols, some do not; and the mounts vary in size and type of paper. There are some duplicate images, with slightly different captions, crops or printing effects. Occasionally duplicate photographs have captions that contradict each other, such as the year photographed (see for example, images 367 and 369). These discrepancies have been noted.
    Other items in collection:
    - One box of ephemera, including brochures for Monsen’s lectures and exhibits; a reprint of The Craftsman, March 1907; and Artland magazine, August 1926, with article on Monsen.
    - One 8" x 10" photograph (in Ephemera box), titled “The Eagle’s Flight.” It shows four Hopi boys on the edge of a mesa cliff. This print appears to have been added to the collection at a later time. This image is not in the set of 373 enlargements.


    Sources consulted:
    Current, Karen. Photography and the Old West. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1978.
    Faris, James C. Navajo and Photography: a critical history of the representation of an American people. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
    Monsen, Courtenay, letter to Gary F. Kurutz (Rare Books Dept., Huntington Library), 17 June 1973, collection files, The Frederick Monsen Ethnographic Indian Photographs Collection, Huntington Library.
    Monsen, Frederick, letter to Leslie Bliss (Librarian, Huntington Library), 22 Feb. 1925, correspondence files, Huntington Library Institutional Archives.
    Monsen, Frederick I. With a Kodak in the Land of the Navajo. Rochester, N.Y.: Eastman Kodak Co., n.d. (approx. 1908).
    Padget, Martin. Indian Country: Representations of Travel in the American Southwest, 1840-1935. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.
    Wilkinson, Kristina. “Frederick Monsen, F.R.G.S., Explorer and Ethnographer.” Noticias (Journal of the Santa Barbara Historical Society), Vol. XV, No. 3 (Summer 1969): 14-23.

    Alternative Form of Materials Available

    Visit the Huntington Digital Library to view additional digitized images from the Native American Photographs Project.  


    At some point, before or after acquisition, numbers 1- 373 were stamped in blue ink on the backs of the photographs. The photographs have been kept in this order; it is not clear if this was Monsen’s original order, or they were arranged later. It seems likely this was the order in which they were received, (possibly over a period of two years or more), since they are not arranged by date, location, tribe, or any other apparent arrangement.

    Related Material

    Four photographs by Monsen in the general photograph collection: photOV 10138 - 10141.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the Huntington Library's Online Catalog.  


    Monsen, Frederick, 1865-1929.
    Nampeyo, approximately 1856-1942.
    Vroman, Adam Clark, 1856-1916.


    Cocopa Indians--Mexico--Colorado River Delta.
    Covered wagons.
    Desert plants-Arizona.
    Frontier and pioneer life.
    Gold miners--West (U.S.).
    Hopi baskets.
    Hopi dance.
    Hopi Indians.
    Hopi pottery.
    Human remains (Archaeology).
    Indian trails.
    Indians of North America--Colorado River Valley (Colo.-Mexico).
    Indians of North America--Southwest, New--Jewelry.
    Indians of North America--Southwest, New--Social life and customs.
    Mission San Xavier del Bac (Tucson, Ariz.).
    Mohave Indians.
    Navajo Indians.
    Paiute Indians.
    Pueblo pottery.
    Pueblo Indians.


    Acoma Pueblo (N.M.).
    Baja California (Mexico : Peninsula).
    Chelly, Canyon de (Ariz.).
    Chinle (Ariz.).
    Colorado Desert (Calif. and Mexico).
    Colorado River (Colo.-Mexico).
    Death Valley (Calif. and Nev.).
    First Mesa (Ariz. : Mesa).
    Isleta Pueblo (N.M.).
    Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico.
    Mojave Desert.
    Muerto, Canyon del (Apache County, Ariz.).
    New Mexico.
    Painted Desert (Ariz.).
    Second Mesa (Ariz. : Mesa).
    Taos Pueblo (N.M.).
    Walpi (Ariz.).
    Zuni (N.M.).

    Document types

    Landscape photographs.