'Postcards from Mecca': 100-year-old photos of California desert at Hi-Desert Nature Museum
Over 100 years ago, cousins Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves embarked on numerous explorations of the desert between Mecca and Blythe, documenting what they encountered with photographs.
Both women had an outsider perspective. Smith moved to the desert from Los Angeles and became a postmaster in Mecca in the 1920s, and Graves followed from Tennessee shortly after. While Smith had already been taking photographs to sell as postcards at the post office, when joined by Graves, they became a wandering duo.
“It was just the two of them, their cameras and a pistol, you know, for the rattlesnakes,” Lula Mae Graves’ grandson, Warner Graves, said, recalling the “adventure tales” she would share with him and his sister as children.
Now, a collection of the women's work makes up the exhibit "Postcards from Mecca," showing at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley through the end of October.
Though his grandmother was an avid photographer and kept several photo albums, Warner Graves said the one featuring pictures from when she first moved to California and was living in Mecca with Smith, "was really my favorite because it had all these great, old-timey sepia-tone photos of cowboys, all that kind of stuff. …Hearing about the prospectors and all the people living in the outback and whatnot really grabbed my boyhood attention.”
The women's photographs also depict the burro teams that would go into mining camps, Bradshaw Road (a stagecoach route to the Arizona goldfields), a newborn Salton Sea and the Orocopia, Cottonwood, Chocolate and Chuckwalla Mountains.
As an adult, Warner said he began to appreciate the same images on a “whole different level,” realizing they were snapshots of a part of California that hadn’t been well documented in that time period.
He eventually co-curated "Postcards from Mecca," which includes 50 images selected from hundreds of photographs by Graves and over 1,500 photographs by Smith.
While Warner inherited his grandmother’s albums, Smith’s pictures were almost lost when she died in San Diego in 1988. Because Smith had no heirs, Warner said the county took over her estate, auctioned what seemed to be of value and threw away the rest.
“There was a staff archaeologist working for the county, his name’s Ron May, and someone told him that there were a bunch of old, interesting black-and-white photographs in a dumpster. So, during his lunch break, he hopped into the dumpster and pulled out several of Susie's photo albums, realized that they were worth saving and kept them for a while," Warner said. Eventually, the archeologist donated them to the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association.
The exhibit has been showcased in the Los Angeles area, the Bay Area and locally in the Coachella Valley three years ago, at the La Quinta Museum. Hi-Desert Nature Museum Registrar and Exhibits Coordinator Vanessa Cantú said the museum was eager to show it next, particularly as it has expanded its exhibits from focusing on the high desert to low desert as well.
Though Cantú personally finds the images to be beautiful, she said the fact that the exhibit consists of photographs taken by women falls in line with a lot of what the Hi-Desert Museum values.
“This museum was started by a woman. And, I think with the exception of one short-term director, it has been led by women ever since then, so we're very conscious about showing that, yes, women do play a role in everyday life, everyday society,” Cantú said.
Among her favorite images, she described a picture of Smith and Graves by their Ford Model T, what they used for transportation when not traveling by foot or donkey.
Cantú elaborated with a laugh: “For that time, I think, two women, driving out in the middle of the desert, no roads whatsoever, it was — excuse my French — pretty badass. So you have these two women, right by the car, and they’re kind of standing there, looking like men, but they’re not men.”
Warner agreed. "Two women traveling alone, unchaperoned, out in the middle of nowhere, was a pretty unheard-of experience. There were some other photographers traveling around that particular part of the California desert and they were all men ... so Susie and Lula were really in a league of their own."
He credited Smith as the leader of the elaborate project, inclusively pointing to all she did despite battling polio and having been told she'd never walk again as a child. Warner said he hoped the women wouldn't get lost to time. Lula Mae Graves died in 2008 at 100.
In trying to preserve the women's legacy, Warner put together the exhibit and the book "Postcards from Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves, 1916-1936." It was published in 2019 by Warner and Ann Japenga, a former journalist, writer and co-curator of the exhibit.
In it, not only can people find even more of Graves' and Smith's collection, but also different essays from Warner, historian Bob Smith (a relative of Smith's), the archeologist who rescued Smith's photographs and archaeologist Russ Kaldenberg, as well as from Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association members.
Warner will talk about the exhibit and book in person at the Mission Lakes Country Club in Desert Hot Springs on Sept. 29. Tickets for the dinner event are available for purchase at dhshistoricalsociety.org.
Before then, he'll speak at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 28. Those interested in attending can get tickets at hidesertnaturemuseum.org.
Once the exhibit concludes at Hi-Desert, Warner said it'll move on to show in Utah. Still, he finds it most special when it is presented locally. "It's just nice that it's in the desert, where people can relate to the scenery and some of the stories and kind of, locate some of the historical sites. I hope they appreciate the regional aspect of it," he said.
Eliana Perez covers the eastern Coachella Valley. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElianaPress.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: 'Postcards from Mecca': Old desert photos shown at Hi-Desert Museum