John Collier Jr.

John Collier Jr.
Born May 22, 1913
Sparkill, New York
Died February 25, 1992 (1992-02-26) (aged 78)
San José, Costa Rica
Citizenship American
Nationality American
Fields Photography, Visual anthropology
Institutions Standard Oil Company
Cornell University
San Francisco State University
Known for Photography, Visual Anthropology
Influences Artist Maynard Dixon
Social Scientists Roy Emerson Stryker, Alexander H. Leighton
John Collier's photographs are archived at the
Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.

John Collier Jr. (May 22, 1913 – 1992), son of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs with the same name, was an American anthropologist and an early leader in the fields of Visual anthropology and Applied anthropology. His emphasis on analysis and use of still photographs in ethnography led him to significant contributions in other subfields of anthropology, especially the applied anthropology of education. His book, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (1967) is one of the earliest textbooks in the field and is still (revised 1986) in use today. He is also notable as someone who overcame significant learning and hearing impairments to succeed on a larger stage.

Early life and family

John Collier Jr., born May 22, 1913 in Sparkill, New York, was the son of Lucy Wood Collier and sociologist John Collier. His father is famous as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the New Deal. John Jr. grew up largely in Taos, New Mexico and the San Francisco Bay Area in California. While living in Mill Valley, California, John suffered injuries in a car accident at age 8 that resulted in major brain injuries and associated learning disabilities and hearing loss that prevented him from successfully completing schooling beyond a third grade level, although he attended school sporadically into his teens. When it became evident that he could not perform in school, his family permitted to him spend considerable time, when in New Mexico, living with family friends in the Taos Indian Pueblo.[1] During the periods he was in California, he came under the influence of Capt. Leighton Robinson, a retired English master in sail, who provided seamanship training to John.

He was also informally apprenticed to the Western painter, Maynard Dixon, who was then married to the photographer Dorothea Lange. He spent considerable time in the Dixon / Lange household in San Francisco during his early and mid teens and was trained in a wide range of painting techniques and skills. When in Taos he also received informal training from the artist Nicolai Fechin. This training largely ended in 1930, when he signed on as seaman in the four masted bark Abraham Rydberg for a voyage from San Francisco around Cape Horn to Dublin, Ireland, an experience arranged by Capt. Robinson. On his return from the voyage he continued to divide his time between Taos and the Bay Area, and in 1934 he established a home in Talpa, New Mexico, which would remain an important anchor place throughout his life.[2]

In 1943, he married Mary Elizabeth Trumbull, who became a long term partner in his photographic and anthropological work. Their son, Malcolm Collier (not to be confused with the anthropologist, Malcolm Carr Collier born 1908), also became an anthropologist who eventually collaborated with his father on a new edition of Visual Anthropology (1986). Other sons include Robin Collier, Vian Collier, and Aran Collier.

Career and professional development

In the early 1930s he served as an informal guide to the photographer Paul Strand (photographer) while Strand was in the Taos region but he continued to attempt a career in painting and writing through the mid-1930s. Only after a brief, unproductive enrollment at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where he took more painting classes, did he turn to photography. He was largely self trained, except for some instruction in studio techniques from Sara Higgins Mack. In 1939, after working for a period in San Francisco, he opened a photographic studio in Taos, using what had been Paul Strand's darkroom and studio.[1]

The studio was not successful financially but his photographic skill increased significantly and in 1940 he returned to San Francisco, where he worked both independently and for a number of commercial photographic studios. In 1941, probably through the influence of Dorothea Lange, some of his work from New Mexico came to the attention of Roy Emerson Stryker who hired him to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) as a photographer. Collier's 1941 employment by the Farm Security Administration under Roy Emerson Stryker established his career in photography and he continued with the photographic unit when it was transferred to the Office of War Information (OWI).

In mid 1943 he left the OWI and served in the Merchant Marine until late 1944, when Stryker hired him to work as a photographer for the Standard Oil Company in the Canadian Arctic and later in Latin America. While in Latin America in 1946, he took leave from Sryker's employment to collaborate with his wife, Mary E.T. Collier and with the Ecuadorian anthropologist Anibal Buitron on an ethnographic study of Otavalo, Ecuador.[3]

After leaving Standard Oil at the end of 1946, Collier worked as a free lance photographer in New Mexico and New York. In 1950 he was hired by Alexander H. Leighton of Cornell University as part of a multi-disciplinary team investigation of community mental health in the Maritimes of Canada. Leighton challenged Collier to formalize methodologies for the use of photography in social science research. Collier's efforts in this arena were in fact a collaborative production with Mary E.T. Collier, without whom translation of Collier's insights and discoveries into standard academic language would have been impossible. The work with Leighton laid the intellectual foundation for the later development of the methodologies for visual anthropology for which Collier is known.

Collier later worked for Cornell in the Southwest and independently recorded the Cornell Vicos project in Peru during 1954 and 1955.[4] He then free lanced out of New Mexico before moving to California in 1959, where he began a long career as a teacher at San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Art institute.

Collier's work in the field of visual anthropology was influenced by Roy Stryker and Alexander H. Leighton. George Spindler, the founder of educational anthropology, chose Collier's book Visual Anthropology (discussed below) for early inclusion in his series of basic books in anthropology.[5] Collier spent a great deal of his professional life giving workshops on the use of photography in visual anthropology, in speeches and professional presentations, as well as in more traditional forms of anthropological writing. Although widely recognized as a fine photographer, he major accomplishment was his contribution to and work in visual anthropology.

Major projects, contributions to visual and applied anthropology

Starting with the work for Leighton in the Maritimes of Canada, Collier worked on a series of important projects. One of his more important efforts, still largely unpublished, was documentation of the still controversial "Cornell/Vicos Project." Directed by Alan Homberg of Cornell and Mario Vasquez of the Universidad de San Marcos, this project aimed to prepare the Indian community of Hacienda Vicos in the central highlands of Peru to survive successfully as a free and independent community.[6] Collier carried out a complete visual ethnography of the community while also recording the operation of the applied project, making use of the full range of visual research methods he and Mary Collier had been developing since their first ethnographic effort with Anibal Buiton in 1946.[7] These methods were further refined in the years following and finally published in 1967 as Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. [5] Generally recognized as the first published use of the term 'visual anthropology', this book and its second edition (co-authored with Malcolm Collier) have remained important references in the field. As Edward T. Hall writes in the introduction to the later edition of the text, the two Colliers (John Jr. and Malcolm) almost singlehandedly established visual anthropology as an observational science in its own right.[8]

Collier's own non-traditional education led him to an analysis and criticism of schooling in the United States, especially regarding the education of disabled children, Native American children and others outside the mainstream. Recognition of his insights in this arena led to his joint appointment as a Professor of both Anthropology and Education at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University). In 1969 he turned to motion picture film to explore cultural conflicts in schools for Native students in Alaska as part of a major national study of American Indian Education.[9] In this and later film based research carried out in Arizona and California, he articulated fresh perspectives toward these groups which emphasized the positive importance of cultural diversity and approaches to schooling that would build on children's own cultural origins and energy.[10]

In the fields of visual anthropology and visual sociology Collier is recognized as a major methodological pioneer, in particular for the development of "photo-elicitation" techniques in which photographs are used systematically in interviews to elicit information and insight.[11] In the revised version (1986) of Visual Anthropology he argues that many, including other cultural anthropologists, have been "blind" to what can be "seen" within the nonverbal sensibility.[12] His chief contributions to anthropology include this view that seeing and representing the visual is as important as speaking or writing words. He challenged modern anthropological viewpoints that regard theory or conceptualization as the endpoint of ethnography or anthropological analysis. Instead, he believed that the very energy of a culture could be seen. Some have theorized that, due to his deafness, he developed his visual skills to a very high degree, as is reflected in his photography as well as in his writings. He was also not afraid to use anthropology to make recommendations, especially when asked to do so by study participants. His work has been referenced and his methods used, not only in visual anthropology and sociology but also in psychiatric and educational anthropology.[13]


His theoretical and methodological contributions were many. While some visual anthropologists and semioticians, like Erving Goffman wanted to reject such forms of visual data as posed photographs, Collier cogently argued that all visual materials, snapshots of any kind, still reveal the something of the kinesthetics and the culture that produced them. So, an anthropologist might look at dozens of posed photographs to understand what constitutes "posing" in that time period and culture, as opposed to rejecting them.[14] Collier also pioneered the use of the camera, in itself, as a method of entry into the field.[15]

Collier died February 25, 1992 in San José, Costa Rica. Today, his photographs are archived at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque.[16]


  1. Biella, Peter 2002. The Legacy of John Collier, Jr. Visual Anthropology Review 17(2):1-11.
  2. Collier, Malcolm 1994. "John Collier, Jr: Cultural Diversity and the Camera." in Steve Yates, ed. Far from Main Street: Three Photographers in Depression-Era New Mexico. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.
  3. Collier, John Jr and Anibal Butron 1949. The Awakening Valley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  4. “An Experiment in Applied Anthropology,” (with Mary E. T. Collier) in Scientific American, 59:cover and pp. 37-49. Report on Cornell/Peru Project at Vicos.
  5. 1 2 1967 Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  6. Greaves, Tom 2010. Vicos and Beyond: A Half Century of Applied Anthropology in Peru. Rowland and Littlefield Publishing Group.
  7. Collier, Malcolm 2003 "The Vicos Photographs of John Collier Jr. and Mary E.T. Collier" in Visual Anthropology 16: 159-206.
  8. Collier, John Jr., and Malcolm Collier. 1986. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  9. Collier, John Jr. 1973. Alaskan Eskimo Education: A Film Analysis of Cultural Confrontation in the Schools. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  10. John Collier, Jr.: Anthropology, Education and the Quest for Diversity
  11. Harper, Douglas 2002. "Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation" in Visual Studies Vol. 17, No. 1, pages 15-26.
  12. Collier, John Jr., and Malcolm Collier. 1986. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  13. MURPHY, JANE M., and LEIGHTON, ALEXANDER H. 1965. "Native Conceptions of Psychiatric Disorder." In Approaches to Cross-Cultural Psychiatry, ed. Jane M. Murphy and Alexander H. Leighton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  14. Edward T. Hall, "Introduction" to Visual Anthropology Collier and Collier, 1986 edition.
  15. Edward T. Hall, ibid.
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