J. Leo Hafen: Forgotten Photographer
Photography’s place in the art world is by now firmly established. But it wasn’t always so. For decades the photographer’s art was considered as something more commercial or scientific than aesthetic. This is nowhere more evident than in regional art histories, where the artists who mixed chemicals are rarely classed with the artists who mixed paint. For instance, George Edward Anderson, the traveling photographer who documented much of Utah around the turn of the 20th century, as well as Mormon historical locations in the East, has only received critical attention in the last few decades. And many of his peers remain unknown. J. Leo Hafen, the son of the well-known artist, and Anderson’s student, was a prize-winning photographer and technical trailblazer, yet is almost completely forgotten today. If he’s remembered at all, it is for his involvement in the scandalous West Tintic Cooperative.
John Leo Hafen grew up in a home that was both religious and artistic.|1| His parents, Thora Twede and John Hafen, came from families that had converted to the LDS Church in Europe and immigrated to Utah. His maternal grandfather, a Dane, worked with his hands as a wigmaker. His father, John Hafen, had apprenticed as a photographer -- along with Anderson and John. F. Bennett -- under Charles Savage, but chose to pursue a career as a painter. Though he struggled to provide for his family with art alone (he also taught), John Hafen was well-respected and was one of the four “art missionaries” sent by the LDS church to study in Paris and return to paint murals in LDS temples.
As a young man Leo followed his father’s artistic pursuits. He experimented with painting and drawing, as attested by a pastel titled “Old Mill at Evening,” owned by The Springville Museum of Art and dated 1900; and at the inaugural Utah Arts Council exhibition in December 1899 he won an award for the best amateur work in photography for his photograph “Peapod.”
When he was twenty, Hafen’s artistic pursuits were put on hold while he left Utah to serve a proselytizing mission for the LDS Church in his father’s native Switzerland. The mission began poorly – he contracted smallpox on the voyage and was confined to a hospital in Berne on his arrival – but he eventually found success, and leadership positions, during his time in Basel, Langman and Winterthur Schauffhausen.
When Hafen returned to Utah in 1903 he focused his attention on photography. That summer he joined George Anderson, who took his “living tent studio” to central Utah. For over twenty years Anderson traveled across Utah, visiting small communities that had no permanent photography studio, setting up his tent and makeshift darkroom to produce portraits for the locals. In photographs taken on the trip, Hafen and Anderson are seen bumping along the arid expanse of Emery County,|3| staring into the chalky gray expanse of the San Rafael Swell,|0| and resting in front of their tent/studio in Castle Gate.|4| Hafen learned the business well enough to set up his own studio in Provo, and when Anderson quit his itinerant business in 1907, Hafen continued it, visiting towns along the Wasatch front. He also provided photographs to the Deseret News. And he continued to receive recognition, winning an award for the most artistic group of photographs at the 1907 Art Institute exhibition.
We know little of Hafen’s artistic work. One photograph, now at the State Historical
Society, shows a rural scene that could have easily been a painterly subject for his father’s circle. Three cows and a calf, seen at midday, form dark blocks against a summer landscape of trees, fields, a stream and fence. Hafen must have been an accomplished technician, as he ran a mail order business producing photographs for Kodak. And as we mentioned in a previous article, he was the first to introduce color photography to the state of Utah, producing, in 1908, a study of the interior of a local greenhouse using the newly patented Autochrome Lumiere process.
A month after he brought Utah’s first color plate to the offices of the Deseret News, with hopes, one imagines, of furthering his career and providing for his young family, his life changed abruptly. In June of 1907 he had married Daisy Marie Nelson, and in the spring of 1908 she was pregnant with their first child when mother and baby both died in childbirth. Adding injury to tragedy, two months later Hafen was thrown from a runaway buggy, breaking both bones of his left femur and finding himself confined to a hospital for months.
Within the year, though, Hafen’s leg and life were on the mend. In June 1909, he married Ella Lowry, the daughter of Manti’s mayor, and a niece to George Anderson. She was his companion for the rest of his life.
Interviewed late in life, Hafen’s brother Joseph recalled that around 1910 Hafen was struck with an illness that caused him to abandon photography. Whether in recollection or transcription, the year must have been confused. Hafen continued to be both very active and professionally adventurous. In 1912, he and Ella visited southern Utah, working as itinerant photographers. That same year their first child, Daisy, was born. Hafen also began serving in a local LDS bishopric. In 1916 professor Levi Edgar Young, Hafen’s former mission president, invited him to join an expedition to San Juan County, where they visited the natural wonders and cliff dwellings. Avard Fairbanks came along to add his sketches to Hafen’s photographic documentation of the trip. One presumes that many of these photographs are extant, though none have yet been identified. Two possibilities are the photographs at the Utah State Historical Society, of a Navajo Woman and a Paiute woman, taken by an unknown photographer and donated by Young.
It was likely sometime after this expedition, possibly during the Influenza Epidemic of 1917-1919, that Hafen became ill. When he joined the West Tintic Cooperative in 1919, while the others broke the soil, he worked the garden.
The West Tintic Cooperative was an economical experiment tinged with religious overtones that turned into a millennial movement. It involved a group of people, many related by marriage and blood, known as the Springville “Separatists.” The Separatists were a group of Mormons for whom the not inconsiderable dietary restrictions and worship commitments of the LDS Church seemed insufficient to satisfy their spiritual needs. They held additional, or “separate,” meetings in which they sought to sustain each other through prayer, fasting and counsel. The group may have initially grown out of health classes taught by a local obstetrician, Danish immigrant Hannah Sorenson, whose lessons emphasized nutrition (eating whole wheat bread, natural foods, and vegetarianism) and sexual conduct (advocating intercourse for conception only, and then spaced at regular intervals); but by the second decade of the century the gatherings had taken on a more religious nature, emphasizing fasting, speaking in tongues, healings, revelations and inspired counsel. The group would hike to a nearby mountain shelf, which they called Kolob, to conduct their meetings. A faith healing of Thora Hafen, Leo’s mother, was attempted to validate their practices. The group also believed in the concept of “true mates,” in which persons were spiritually meant for each other. Hafen’s sister Delia |6| was married to David Whyte according to this principle.
In 1917 one of the Separatists, Moses Gudmundson, a violin professor at the Brigham Young Academy, found even these practices insufficient. His religious fervor, amplified by personal struggles (he lost two children that year, their deaths attributed to food and gastric problems) convinced him the end times were approaching. After the Influenza epidemic hit the next year, killing several of his colleagues and infecting his five remaining children, he desired a drastic change. He purchased land in the relatively remote Juab County and sought a group of like-minded individuals to homestead the area. He found them in his close friends and family.
A handsome, charismatic man, Gudmundson was a well-respected teacher. He was also a close friend of the Hafens. When John Hafen’s family had first moved to Springville they stayed with the Crandalls, Gudmundson’s in-laws. For their wedding John Hafen gave the Gudmundsons a painting, and when Erma became ill with her first child, Thora acted as a wet nurse. John Hafen, who had died in 1910, had taught at Brigham Young Academy with Gudmundson, and his son Leo lived nearby him in Provo.
Over a two-year span up to sixty people joined the West Tintic Cooperative. The group was as ill suited for the venture as the land was. Only a few had experience as farmers. The core group was composed of a music professor, a photographer, a bookkeeper, a teacher, and a streetcar conductor. A small patch of land in the bottom of the swale was fertile and here Hafen was the gardener, but otherwise the ground was uncooperative. Though a spring prophesied by Gudmundson was found, it was far less than the gushing geyser he had predicted; and out of religious conviction the homesteaders refused to kill the rabbits that ate the few crops they were able to grow. Most provisions had to be shipped in, and they relied on incomes, like their teaching salaries, to keep them going.
In the spring of 1920 Thora Hafen, who had been suffering from cancer, died. Her single children returned to Springville, as did others from the group disheartened by the results. Lillie Nisbet also died, some said because of over-fasting.
What began as a cooperative economic experiment evolved gradually into a millennial movement with increasingly communal aspects. Though the group had distanced themselves geographically, they had never broken with the LDS Church. In 1920, however, church leaders investigated. They released Gudmundson, who had served as the church’s ecclesiastical leader in the area and replaced him with Hafen. The group, it was felt, was overly concerned with personal revelations. They believed in dreams, or night visions, of which Gudmundson considered himself chief interpreter. Gudmundson was also making dire predictions of coming calamities.
Gudmundson increasingly taught the group that sacrifice was the key to their success. They needed to sacrifice everything to the good of the group in order to receive the Spirit of God. This included their spouses. Men not married to their “true mates” might have to sacrifice their wives to other men in the group. Gudmunson’s wife, and the wife of Gerald Lowry (Ella Hafen’s brother) did not agree. When they left the colony, the new practice became public.
Officials investigated. By this time only a core group remained in West Tintic. They were Gudmundson, who was now paired with May Houtz; Delia Hafen Whyte, who now lived with Houtz’s husband, Elvon; Gerald Lowry, who lived with Lucy Metcalf; Leo and Ella Hafen; and the three men left “single:” David Whyte, Lee Metcalf and Thomas Nesbit. In civic trials, Houtz and Lowry were found guilty of adultery. Gudmundson was acquitted.
Ecclesiastical leaders held their own trial. The women were disfellowshipped, a disciplinary action short of excommunication, but Gudmundson, Houtz, Lowry and Hafen were excommunicated. Apostle James E. Talmage’s notes from the trial provide insight into the process. Though the Hafens had not themselves participated in the practice of wife sacrifice, because Hafen, as Branch President, had condoned the practice and remained loyal to Gudmundson, he too was cut off.
As one can imagine, the scandal was grist for the journalistic mill. Papers as far away as New York, which for years had enjoyed following the exploits of polygamous Mormondom, carried reports on the trial. The truth may not have been as salacious as some hoped or imagined. Joseph Hafen,|7| who left the colony before the practice was revealed, indicated that Gudmundson still believed intercourse was only meant for conception, and that unmarried individuals were not part of the practice. That Delia Hafen left her able-bodied husband for Elvon Houtz,|8| who was crippled with rheumatism, suggests that not everyone’s intentions were completely carnal.
As much dust as the West Tintic scandal stirred, as soon as the trials were over, and the divorces settled, little else was heard of the group. When Carlton Culmsee wrote his essay A Modern Moses at West Tintic in 1967 he had little idea what had become of the individuals in the group.
Whatever the bonds were that formed in the two dozen months the Separatists spent on the West Tintic mountains, they were lasting. We now know that within a few years of the trial, the core group settled near each other in San Bernadino County, California. Gerald Lowry married Margaret Houtz and lived with the Gudmundsons for a time. Moses’ oldest son, Crandall, the only child allowed to go with Gudmundson after his custody battle, married May’s oldest daughter, Melba. Lee Metcalf, who first went with his wife to Idaho, eventually married a daughter of David Whyte and Delia Hafen. David Whyte lived, with his and Delia Hafen’s children, at the home of his deceased sister’s husband, Thomas Nesbit. And Delia Hafen and Elvon Houtz became the Hales and had four children of their own.
In Redlands, California Hafen found work as the gardener of a large estate and he and Ella raised six children. Hafen also returned to photography. Two years before his death in 1942, Desert Magazine awarded him a Special Merit award for his “Cholla Cactus.”
After Hafen died, Ella moved in with the Gudmundsons.