While digging into the history of the Saline Valley Salt Mine and Tram, brothers Tim and Brian Waag uncovered what they consider a forgotten gem: pioneer photographer A.A. Forbes.
The brothers have been researching and photographing the remains of the famous Death Valley salt tram for almost a decade, and during their investigations in local museums and libraries, they kept running across excellent photos of the Owens Valley with the inscription, “A.A. Forbes,” said Tim Waag. “Our motto is, if we find something interesting, we buy the book,” he noted, but in the case of Forbes, “there was no book, so we’ll make the book.”
In this case, the “book” is a detailed blog about Forbes, who operated a photo studio in Bishop between 1902 and 1916. Local history buffs are well aware of Forbes’ work, since his photos comprise one of the major photographic records of the time. However, Forbes came to Bishop near the end of his career. Starting in the late 1880s, Forbes photographed a significant swath of the history of the western United States, from Oklahoma and Arizona to California.
It is that extensive body of work the Waags want to highlight and spotlight.
“We believe that Forbes was under-appreciated as a pioneer photographer,” said Waag. “We’re striving to honor his extraordinary contribution to recording the history of the West, and particularly the Owens Valley.” As for Forbes, the man, “our research has revealed A.A. Forbes to be a hardworking man of the people, humble to his core, and connected in a spiritual way with the people and places he photographed.”
Tim Waag will offer insights into the photographer when he presents, “Welcome to the Life of Pioneer Photographer A.A. Forbes,” at 7 p.m. today, March 18, at the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert, 230 West Ridgecrest Blvd. (the Historic USO Building), in Ridgecrest. Call (760) 375-8456, or check www.aaforbes.blogspot.com  for the Waags’ extensive research and writing about Forbes. The following is a brief overview of their research on Forbes.
Andrew Alexander Forbes was born was born in 1862 in Wisconsin, the fifth of eight children. The family moved often, but finally settled on a cattle ranch in Kansas. So, as a young man Forbes learned about horses, cattle and ranch life, and developed a ruggedness and ability to work outside in tough conditions, attributes that were key to his early success as an itinerant photographer.
In the late 1880s, Forbes set out as a professional, traveling photographer. He outfitted a wagon as a mobile “photographic kit,” and traveled to Dodge City, Kan., Stillwater, Okla., the Texas Panhandle, Taos and Santa Fe, N.M., northern Arizona and the Rocky Mountains.
His photos of the Oklahoma Land Rush (circa 1889) became the most historically important images from Forbes’ early years. He captured the excitement and confusion of the “Opening Run” at the “Cherokee Strip,” when thousands of land-hungry homesteaders made a mad dash into former “Indian Territory” to secure free land. Forbes’ photo of Oklahoma City, when it was just days old, documented the birth of the frontier town. His photos of the event are now at the University of Oklahoma.
Also during this period, Forbes photographed buffalo herds, cattle ranches and cowboys. He would often spend several days with a cattle outfit, on the range, while taking photos. Forbes also made striking images of Native Americans in the region, including the Cheyenne, Apache, Navaho, Hopi and Pueblo people.
In 1898, Forbes arrived in California and set up shop in Santa Ana. He took photos throughout Southern California, north to Hollister and the San Joaquin Valley, and east to Death Valley.
Forbes arrived in Bishop in 1902, opened his “Forbes Studio” on West Line Street, and began documenting the Eastern Sierra landscape and its people. To accomplish that task, he outfitted a wagon with photographic equipment, including cameras, glass negatives, photo paper, dark room supplies and a tent and camping gear. His mobile “photographic kit” allowed him to travel to the towns in the county to take photos and sell them, on the spot.
His first love, though, was landscape photography and he would spend days in the wilderness carrying his bulky camera equipment either in his wagon or on horseback. When the trail gave out, he would pack his equipment on his back and hike. Scenic photos became a mainstay of the studio, including images of Mt. Whitney, Yosemite, the San Joaquin Valley, and the peaks and meadows of the Eastern Sierra.
Forbes’ photos possessed a high technical quality, Waag noted, due primarily to his massive 8x10 inch negatives, along with the long exposure times the camera required. That combined to create photos which captured incredible detail, he added. Forbes also possessed a seriousness of purpose in his photography, which allowed him to pursue difficult subjects, Waag said.
One of those “difficult” subjects was the Owens Valley water wars. Forbes took photos of the Owens Valley’s various streams, rivers and other sources of water for Fred Eaton, former mayor of Los Angeles who first conceived the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and made the initial land purchases, on the sly, which allowed the project to proceed. Once it was clear what L.A. and Eaton were doing, Forbes opposed to the aqueduct project. However, he also took and sold plenty of photos of the construction of the aqueduct.
Once again, ranch life, cowboys and cattle were subjects for Forbes’ camera, as were the local Paiutes. Forbes went in “the field” and captured scenes of everyday Paiute life in camps, at work on ranches or at gatherings and festivals. Forbes also took numerous studio portraits of local Paiutes. One outstanding set of studio photos by Forbes are of the “Bishop Paiute Baby Indian Show, 1916.” The photos show Paiute babies in cradleboards being held by their mothers or siblings. (The photos are on exhibit at the Eastern California Museum, in Independence.)
Forbes closed his Bishop studio in 1916, and moved to Lompoc, Calif., with his wife and son, where he died in 1921. His wife, Mary, continued to sell his photos into the 1950s.
Besides the Eastern California Museum, collections of Forbes’ photographs are housed at the Seaver Center for Western History Research in the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, the University of Oklahoma Library in Norman, Okla., the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C.