The James J. Hanks Collection held by Special Collections and Archives, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, consists primarily of approximately 450 digitally scanned negatives, all available online at the Colorado Plateau Digital Archives when searching for “Hanks”. These photographs were taken in 1927 and 1928 in northern Arizona and southern Utah, across a domain that encloses thousands of square miles, all of which is now part of the Navajo Nation, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, or the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Even today, the Colorado-San Juan country north of Navajo Mountain remains a thinly populated, remote, and forbidding terrain. The Hanks Collection also includes an album of the 1927 trip prints, Hanks’ letters to his mother and sister, and maps that were available at the time, gifts of the Hanks and Sharp families.
Hanks traveled with Clyde Kluckhohn, then beginning his career as one of the great anthropologists of the 20th century; Lauri Sharp, also to become a distinguished anthropologist; Bill Gernon, and Nel Hagen. All were undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin at the time of the 1927 and 1928 trips. Kluckhohn has chronicled their adventures in the little-read and hard-to-find volume, Beyond the Rainbow, illustrated with nine of the Hanks pictures. Those interested in the history and culture of the American Southwest will certainly know Kluckhohn for his classic studies of the Navajo conducted with Dorothea Leighton.
Apart from documenting the early work of Clyde Kluckhohn, who was fluent in the Navajo language at the time of these trips and became an adopted son of the Navajo, the Hanks Collection is of interest for its early pictures of a region that was little known apart from the two trails to Rainbow Bridge, the Wetherill Trail from Kayenta pioneered in 1909 by John Wetherill, and the Rainbow trail from Rainbow Lodge, a 1925 venture of the Richardson family on the southwest flank of Navajo Mountain. Matters stayed this way until the expeditions of the 1950’s set out to document the area soon to be inundated by Glen Canyon Dam.
The Hanks Collection is also of interest because its pictures were taken by a 19- and 20-year-old undergraduate, not a specialized professional who might take pictures only of geology, or of archeological sites, or of the Navajo people and culture. Hanks took pictures of all of these, but the pictures that are the most remarkable for me, given photographic technology of the day, are those of lightning strikes in the black of night.
Hanks could not have known, however, that his photographs, when paired with repeat photographs taken at his 1927 and 1928 camera stations would often show significant cultural, ecologic, geologic, and/or hydrologic change, and such changes on the timescale of a human lifetime are critical concerns for how we view and use the land on which we live. This repeat photography site, then, document these changes, such as our yet-uncompleted work with the 1927 and 1928 photographs permit, as well as fixing precisely points traversed by these trips.
Thomas C. Hanks, March, 2007
Repeat photography requires knowing where the photograph to be matched was originally taken. When USGS personnel (including Tom Hanks) first got started with repeating the Hanks photographs, there was considerable uncertainty as to where many of the photographs were taken through the thousands of square miles traversed by the 1927 and 1928 trips, much of it with often impassable relief. “Virtual repeat photography” (VRP) is a technique developed to find camera stations for uncertain locations of a mile or more. The technique uses high-resolution (10-m spacing) digital topographic data (known as DEM, for digital elevation model) in concert with advanced computer hardware and software to view the virtual landscape at any elevations, azimuths, and declinations desired. This capability primarily minimizes time in the field locating the 1927 and 1928 camera stations, but VRP also allows for the construction of synthetic photographs when rectified aerial photographs are available in digital form. Once the digital landscape in the reference frame of the original photograph is fixed, the aerial photograph is draped over the digital landscape to construct a virtual photograph at the time the aerial photograph was taken.