Best Of The West 2012: Carl Moon, Photographer With A Native Heart
Photgraphy: (Navajo Boy) Carl Moon/© Corbis, (4) Carl Moon/Courtesy Library of Congress
The face of the handsome youth in the famous Navajo Boy image is familiar. The photographer who immortalized him in Western culture is not.
Born in 1879 in Wilmington, Ohio, Carl (originally Karl) Everton Moon loved reading stories about Native Americans as a boy. He followed his Western aspirations to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he set up a studio in 1904 and began photographing, painting, and traveling among Pueblo tribe members he befriended.
“Photographing the American Indian in his natural state was the principal aim of Carl Moon,” wrote Tom Driebe, author of In Search of the Wild Indian: Photographs & Life Works by Carl and Grace Moon. “He tried to show the Indian as he lived before civilization hampered his freedom ... and changed his picturesque customs and mode of dress.” Moon knew he was working against the clock of forced acculturation. “About the only thing we have thus far overlooked taking from the Indian,” he wrote, “is his right to perform his religious rites with their accompanying dances in his own way.”
In 1907 Moon moved to Arizona and for seven years gathered paintings and photographs for the Fred Harvey Company at the Grand Canyon; there, he also served as the official photographer for the Santa Fe Railroad and studied painting with visiting artists, including Thomas Moran, Louis Akin, and Frank Sauerwein. Moon married artist Grace Purdie in 1911, and the two traveled the Southwest documenting Native culture. In 1914, the couple settled in Pasadena, California, and embarked on a series of 22 illustrated children’s books about American Indians.
In 1923, Moon approached railroad magnate and art collector Henry E. Huntington with the proposition of selling 300 photographic prints and 24 oil paintings, “an addition that Moon felt would ‘give the student of the future the true coloring of the Indian and his surroundings,’ ” says Jennifer A. Watts, curator of photographs at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
Moon died in 1948 in San Francisco; his art lives on at The Huntington, where the collection is being arranged, described, and digitized. “The Moon photographs are not only an important visual resource for scholars and students of tribal peoples at the turn of the 20th century,” Watts says, “but sensitive, beautifully rendered portraits that reveal the artist’s deep admiration for the peoples he photographed.”