John Collier, Jr. was born in 1913 in Sparkill, NY. At the age of 16 he sailed as a yeoman on a four-mast bark to Europe. He was trained at the California School of Fine Arts and worked as a photographer in San Francisco during the 1930s. His first photographic studio was set up in Paul Strand’s old darkroom in Taos, New Mexico. From 1941 to 1943 he worked as a photographer under Roy E. Stryker for the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information.
In 1946 Collier made a photographic study of the Indians of Otavalo, Ecuador, in collaboration with the anthropologist Anibal Buitron. After a period as a freelance photographer he began working for Cornell University’s Anthropology Department in 1950 where he was involved in various fieldwork projects, conducted workshops on photography and experimented with research uses of photography. He further explored the possibilities of photography as a research tool on the Fruitland Project, Navajo Reservation with John Adair and Tom Sasaki.
One of the recurrent themes of Collier’s work is the use of photography and film in the analysis of educational processes, a subject on which he has contributed a large body of publications. From 1958 to 1990 he taught, almost continuously, a course in photography at the California School of Fine Arts (San Francisco Art Institute) and from 1961 to 1983 he taught in the Anthropology Department at the San Francisco State University, where he became a full professor. Photographs by John Collier were shown in several galleries and museums on the American continent from 1946 on, for example at the exhibitions The Family of Man (1955) and The Bitter Years, 1931-41: Rural America as Seen by the Photographers of the Farm Security Administration. (1962) at the Museum of Modern Art. John Collier died in 1992, in San Jose, Costa Rica.
In January 2006, The American Image: The Photographs of John Collier Jr. online exhibit developed by the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and Ideum was launched. The site makes use of Flickr mashups to pull in images for activities and a collection.