Focus on the Past

Ann Japenga

Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Edward Curtis, and other top photographers sought the vast and extreme spaces and dramatic mountains of the Coachella Valley. And from the early 1900s to the 1940s and beyond, dozens of lesser-known photographers came to study and document this slice of the California desert. Some even settled here.

Panoramic photographer Avery Edwin Field lived in a rustic cabin near the Tennis Club in 1917 (the ruins remain there). Susie Smith, Mecca postmaster in the 1920s and ’30s, photographed the mysterious Chocolate, Orocopia, Cottonwood, and Chuckwalla mountains.

Early photographers were a restless bunch. Smith, who wore a full leg brace due to childhood polio, covered thousands of miles of remote desert in her Model T Ford, her large-format camera and a .38 revolver beside her on the seat.

Richard Steinheimer, the “Ansel Adams of Railroad Photography,” sometimes took pictures from atop a rolling locomotive. Burton Frasher, known as the  “Postcard King of the Southwest,” stashed his portable darkroom in the sidecar of his motorcycle.

Some didn’t stop where the roads ended. Fred Clatworthy once walked 600 miles through the desert with his camera and tripod lashed to burros.

The art of photography came of age at the same time as the American West. Photographers seeking true “Westerness” sought it in sand dunes, mountains, railroads, Indians, and palm groves.

For the most part, they didn’t think of themselves as historians, but they left a rich record of life here before golf courses and casinos. Smith summed it up when she said, “I made my own roads and took pictures for pleasure.”

Lockwood was called Palm Springs’ first professional photographer after coming here in 1911 to cure his tuberculosis. Though he took many classic early photos of Palm Springs, historians know little about his life except that he once lived at The Desert Inn.

Frasher was the largest producer of postcards in the West. Pomona Public Library has 5,000 of his photos, less than 10 percent of his total output. Active from the mid-teens until the early 1950s, he traveled constantly, often driving his car into roadless desert wilderness.

Pierce was one of the most important photographers of early Southern California. The Huntington Museum has a collection of 10,000 of his prints. He photographed Indian Wells as early as 1903 and documented local Indian tribes. The gentleman with the white beard in the photo here is Chief Cabezon, leader of the indigenous Cahuilla Indians.


A master of railroad photography who helped elevate train pictures to an art form, Steinheimer was originally inspired by the work of Lucius Beebe. He used a Speed Graphic camera for night shots in the rail yards. The image on this page is The Argonaut, Westbound at Garnet, 1950. Chasing trains since 1945, Steinheimer slowed down in 2004 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He lives in Sacramento with his wife, fellow railroad photographer Shirley Burman.

One of the first color photographers for National Geographic, Clatworthy bought 330 acres at the end of Ramon Road in 1921. His house, once on the site, is gone now. A friend of early Palm Springs photographer Stephen Willard, he once photographed naturalist John Muir in Palm Canyon.


The former Mecca postmaster roamed by auto, foot, and burro — documenting everything she saw. Her photographs from the 1930s include rare images of construction of the Colorado River aqueduct. Her entire collection of negatives was tossed in a dumpster when she died and would have been lost if not for a history fanatic who jumped in to save them.