John K. Hillers began making photographs while exploring the terrain around the Colorado River in 1871. Part of a survey team led by John Wesley Powell, a geologist and ethnologist, Hillers was originally hired as a boatman. He became increasingly interested in the work of the team’s photographer, began acting as his assistant, and by 1872 had become the expedition photographer.
From the 1870s until about 1900, Hillers continued working for Powell, who became the first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. Perhaps reflecting Powell’s interests, the emphasis of Hillers’s work gradually shifted from geology and geography to archaeology and ethnology. He spent almost twenty years exploring the Indian Territories, California, the Southwest, and the Southeast, eventually producing a sensitive record of Native Americans and their way of life. His portraits supplemented the Bureau of Ethnology’s collection of artifacts.
Hillers spent his entire career as a government photographer, working for agencies dedicated to increasing knowledge. Bureau of Ethnology and Geological Survey publications reproduced his work, and examples also appeared at numerous international expositions. Hillers’s photographs, seen by a wider audience than those of other photographers, had a great impact on Americans and on American photography.