fig. 25: Frontispiece from Armer, Waterless Mountain
by Laura Adams Armer

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Picture Possibilities · Waterless Mountain

Waterless Mountain
by Peter E. Palmquist, 1996

The Navajo called Laura Adams Armer "the woman who wears the turquoise" and "hard-working woman." She was the first white woman to have a sand painting prepared in her honor and the first permitted to film the sacred Mountain Chant ceremony (1928) for distribution as a feature-length movie. She was also a respected painter and photographer for many years before she turned her hand to writing. Her first book, Waterless Mountain (1931), was published when she was fifty-seven years old. It received both the Newberry Medal and the Longmans, Green & Company's prize for juvenile fiction.

Anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, in a blurb on the Waterless Mountain dust jacket, succinctly describes Armer's unique contribution to American juvenile literature: "Waterless Mountain is a direct, simple story, movingly told. It is human, it is good Indian and authentic Navajo. Like [Oliver] LaFarge's Laughing Boy, it shows that we have entered a time when the Indian is no longer a dummy to hang our own romanticism on, but an interest and appeal in himself as he really is."

Congratulated on the success of her book, Armer reflected, "I've been writing books in my mind for the last thirty-five years. Waterless Mountain was merely the first one I put down on paper."(1)

Unlike most books chosen for the "Perpetual Mirage" exhibition, Waterless Mountain is less a "photographic book" and more a derivative of a photographer's preoccupation with both photography and painting, ultimately it is the spiritual combination of these two media with the written word. After more than two decades of exhibition photography, where Armer had remained tied to the photographic conventions of the era, she now felt empowered to employ her camera to record situations which she subsequently translated into thematic "illustrations" for an increasingly wide audience. In the case of Waterless Mountain, this meant finding a more spiritual vehicle that would appeal to a juvenile audience.

Both the dust jacket and frontispiece illustration for Waterless Mountain are clearly photographic in vision and impact, and only after a more detailed examination do we realize that it is actually a painting. Moreover, the painting was itself based on a composite of two different photographs, both taken by Armer. The first is an overview and the second a close-up image of the foreground figures. The composite, thus formed, was a perfect counterpoint to Armer's emerging literary style.

Six other books by Armer, all with Southwestern themes, followed: Dark Circle of Branches (1933); Cactus (1934); Southwest (1937); Farthest West (1939); and her autobiography, In Navajo Land (1962), which was published shortly before her death in 1963 at age eighty-nine. (The Forest Pool, published in 1938, featured a Mexican theme.)

Armer's life journey stands as a fascinating preface to the genesis of Waterless Mountain and deserves a brief profile. Laura May (Adams) Armer (1874-1963) was born in Sacramento, California, the youngest of three children. Her father had been a farmer-turned-carpenter who had tried his hand at gold mining, but his luck was bad; he also broke his leg and his claim was jumped. Her mother achieved recognition as the seamstress who made the elegant rose brocade wedding dress worn by Mrs. Leland Stanford. As a child, Laura was considered "puny" and "dreamy" and was doted on by her mother. A photograph of Laura at an early age shows her with a strong, almost masculine look, a determined scowl in her large, protuberant eyes, and blonde corkscrew curls. By age sixteen, Armer had shown a penchant for sketching and painting, and her uncle provided money for her to enter the San Francisco School of Art, which she then attended for six years.

Following her graduation from art school, Armer established a photography studio in San Francisco, where she catered to members of California high society. She also exhibited successfully in Photographic Salons well into the 1920s.(2) In the spring of 1902 she and her sister visited the Southwest for the first time: "There at Tucson and in the Catalina Mountains I was first inoculated with the desert delirium."(3) Upon her return she wrote articles illustrated with her photographs for Sunset and Overland Monthly. She married classmate Sidney Armer (1871-1962), who later achieved fame as the highest paid commercial illustrator in California.(4) They had already known each other for at least eight years, yet the marriage was an uneasy partnership. Laura claimed to trace her heritage back to the presidential Adamses, while Sidney was a Jew. He was also a socialist. Throughout their life together, Sidney was as accommodating as Laura was demanding, yet in the end their artistic partnership was far closer than either would have dared to admit.

Their son Austin was born in 1903 (an infant daughter died in 1905). Laura doted on Austin, and he became the nude child pictured in many of her art photographs until, at age sixteen, he finally rebelled.

Following her marriage, Laura abandoned her San Francisco studio and moved her darkroom to her home with Sidney in Berkeley. Here she continued her art photography and in 1904 won four awards in the Kodak Competition. In 1905 she illustrated Theodore Elden Jones' book Leaves From an Argonaut's Note Book and in 1906 traveled on assignment to Tahiti. (5)

In 1923, Armer returned to the Southwest. She had already heard of the Navajo song concerning "Dawn Boy," a child of the White Corn wandering in the House of Happiness: "and it was the song of Dawn Boy that decided the route of our vacation in June, 1923. We left Berkeley in a Buick touring car, Sidney and I, our twenty-year-old son Austin, and Paul Louis Faye, a friend who had lived among the Navajos.... We were prepared to camp out in a dry country. The running board of the car held canteens of water and a lunch box. A trunk on the rear stowed a gasoline camp stove with pots and pans. Sleeping bags and ethnological reports filled half the back seat. Cameras and canned goods reposed at our feet. (6)

It was on this trip that Armer purchased her famed turquoise earrings. She saw some that she wanted and asked Faye what she should pay for them. "If they are heart's desire, pay what equals heart's desire." Since few white women wore turquoise at this time, Armer's chance purchase gave her an entry to the Navajo and frequently provided the turning point in times of delicate negotiations.

February 1924 found Laura "armed with paint, brushes, canvas, and cameras" as she prepared to capture the scenes at Sunset Post and Oraibi. She also met Lorenzo Hubbell, of the Hubbell Trading Post, who was to exert a profound influence on her life for the next fifteen years (he became her mentor, arranged her trips into Navajo areas, and helped fund her 1928 film, The Mountain Chant). In hopes of meeting local Indians, she agreed to teach an art class in the nearby government school; she had forty Hopi boys and girls in her first class. The following year she requested that Hubbell find her a retreat where she could paint and photograph in solitude. Hubbell took her to Blue Canyon, where she set up her canvases and paints in two tiny tents. As Hubbell left, he remarked, "If this moon place is not wild enough for you, send word to Oraibi and I will try to find you what you want." Asked if she did not feel lonely, "staying week after week in the canyon," she replied, "Here with Navajos I am not hampered by trivialities, but I have learned that one must win his own place in the spiritual world, painfully and alone.... The Promised Land lies on the other side of a wilderness." (7)

Her biggest challenge, namely, that no woman could be admitted to sacred native ceremonies, was met in Armer's characteristic head-on fashion: "Tell them not to think of me as a woman, but as an artist."(8) Likewise, when the Navajo objected to her photographing or copying their sand paintings, she asked what exactly was sacred. Learning that the "sprinkling of pollen" was the forbidden ingredient, she convinced the elders that perhaps it would be no violation to photograph the sand paintings sans pollen. She eventually recorded more than one hundred sand paintings with her camera and paint brush.(9)

Even more remarkable was her ability to arrange for filming the Mountain Chant ceremony. With no previous filmmaking experience, Armer wrote, directed, edited, produced, and marketed the entire project. She even convinced Lorenzo Hubbell to make a major capital investment in the film. Since some of the public showings were narrated by Navajos in native tongue, The Mountain Chant is considered to be the first "all Indian" motion picture "in an aboriginal language."(10)

Marketing The Mountain Chant was another matter entirely. Armer traveled to Hollywood, hired an agent, and embarked on a roller-coaster life of hope and disappointment. Everyone agreed that Armer's film was a fine example of "Art" but not marketable as such. On October 18, 1928, Armer wrote to Lorenzo Hubbell: "I'm not a success as a salesman...everything is business, graft, politics, pull, cringing slavery. You can't realize until you come here [to Hollywood]. It's a gimme gimme attitude. Sorry, but it's one woman against millions of businessmen."(11) Nonetheless, despite the obvious lack of a public forum, her film was rather widely viewed. Private showings before the Section of Anthropology and Psychology of the New York Academy of Sciences, the Explorer Club, and at the University of Pennsylvania were but three of many venues. Armer's struggle to promote the film commercially, however, was making her ill, and in desperation she retreated increasingly into her writing. In the winter of 1931, she lived in a furnished apartment in Winslow, Arizona, while working on her second book, Dark Circle of Branches.

In April 1932 Armer described her journey eastward to receive the Newberry Medal: "I was living in the wilderness of the Navajo and Hopi country, seventy eight miles from the railroad. In the Hopi village of Oraibi, a sand storm raged for four days before I left.... Traveling by train across New Mexico, through Texas to New Orleans.... I had time to think about the Newberry Medal...that I, as a genuine amateur in the field of literature, had never heard of the Newberry Medal."(12)

Laura had yet another reason to exult: "It was during the depression years, when Waterless Mountain saved us from going hungry, that I received in Winslow a check for $2000 from my publishers. Mr. Hubbell introduced me to the banker, to have it cashed. The banker's remark I have never forgotten: 'The whole damned country isn't worth $9000.' That pleased me very much, showing the difference in points of view of the materialist and the dreamer. That is what I am...''(13) More writing followed. In 1935, Southwest, which she wrote and illustrated, was published. "Southwest mythology," she wrote, "centers about the Almighty Sky, the endless one, who bears the stars upon his back at night and makes a trail of beauty for the Sun Bearer by day." She also put herself into the manuscript, in passages such as: "This is the Hard-working Woman who paints on paper," or "He smiled back at the Hard-working Woman with the soft white hair like downy breast feathers of the eagle."(14)

The Trader's Children (1937) is also highly autobiographical. Laura refers to herself as "Aunt Mary," to Sidney as "Uncle Joe," and describes how they built an eight-sided house where they "could draw and paint and study." She was later sued by one of the subjects described in the book for "demeaning his character." The suit was settled for $750 and discontinuance of the book.(15)

Armer disavowed that she ever had mystical leanings toward the Indians, but a New York Times reviewer spoke of her as "being naturally a pagan mystic." Her son, Austin, added these words concerning his mother's religious tendencies: "My mother had no religious background that I know of, altho she mentioned some ancestors in New York were Unitarians...awe of the natural and supernatural - faith in miracles - profound belief in extrasensory perception, etc., she had aplenty."(16)

Although Laura and Sidney had lived apart for much of the Depression (Sidney found work in Detroit), they continued to intertwine their art. Laura's books, for example, were illustrated in one of three ways: by Sidney alone, by Laura alone, or by the two working together. In the case of Waterless Mountain, there are four illustrations by Laura, one by both Laura and Sidney, and the remainder by Sidney.(17) As previously mentioned, the dust jacket and frontispiece illustration actually reproduce a painting by Laura, based on a composite of two of her photographs.

After 1936, Laura no longer visited the Southwest as part of her work. Unable to establish ownership of the eight-sided studio that she had built on the reservation, she was forced to consolidate her life and return to California. In 1938, her book The Forest Pool was recognized as the most distinguished picture book of that year. The book was illustrated, in color, with her paintings.(18) Her remaining years were spent writing - including work on a 50,000-word manuscript about sand painting(19) - and reminiscing about the Southwest and art generally.

In March 1960, Laura received a telephone call from a man planning to give a talk on Waterless Mountain at Fresno University. He wanted to know if it had sold 50,000 copies. To which Laura replied, "I couldn't tell him off-hand but would count up my royalty statements for 30 years. I think they show a satisfactory number. Man said he didn't know whether I was dead or alive."(20) The following day she checked her accounts, confirming, with ill-suppressed glee, that Waterless Mountain had indeed sold in excess of 50,000 copies.

The following month she noted that a recording had just been released of Waterless Mountain and that her "yearly" statement from Longmans indicated that one hundred copies had already been sold: "It is [now] thirty years ago that I wrote it." She further noted, "When I was in New York some years ago certain enthusiasts said to me: 'Longmans, Green & Co. have published two masterpieces for children, Robinson Crusoe and Waterless Mountain.' I should be blushing to write this, but I confess I felt somewhat exhilarated...." (21)


100 Years of California Photography by Women

Women Photographers and the American Indian

All text © Peter E. Palmquist
Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West.
New York, NY:Whitney Museum of Art, 1996