John Collier, Jr. was born in 1913, the youngest son of Lucy Wood Collier and John Collier, Sr. His father was a social activist who later served as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945 and, because of this work, the family maintained ties to the area around Taos, New Mexico. In the 1930s, John Collier, Jr. established a home in this area. In 1943, he married Mary Elizabeth Trumbull, who became a photographer herself and an important partner in his field projects.
In 1941 to 1943, Collier worked as a photographer with the Farm Securities Administration and the Office of War Information under Roy Stryker and documented many areas around the eastern U.S and northern New Mexico.
Other documentary projects in the New Mexico region included the community of Cebolla in 1950, Truchas in 1952, Peñasco and Picuris in the late 1950s, and many photographs taken on the Navajo Reservation from 1938-1972.
After his family moved to Mill Valley, California in 1919, John suffered accidents that resulted in hearing loss and learning disabilities that affected him the rest of his life.
When Collier was twelve, he was apprenticed to Maynard Dixon, a well-known painter, to afford him opportunities outside of formal schooling. Dixon 's wife, Dorothea Lange, exposed him to photography. At the age of 16, Collier sailed as a yeoman on a four-mast sailing ship to Europe, contributing to his disciplined work habits and his lifelong love of the sea. In the 1930s, Collier spent time with the photographer Paul Strand and set up his first photographic studio in Strand's old darkroom in Taos, New Mexico.
Office of War Information
Working under Roy Stryker again for the Standard Oil Company, Collier had field projects in the Canadian Arctic and several countries in South America. In 1946, he completed an independent photographic project of the indigenous people of Otavalo, Ecuador, in collaboration with the anthropologist Anibal Buitron. In the 1950s, he began work with Cornell University 's Anthropology department on various fieldwork projects and workshops in photography and research methods, including projects in New Mexico and Nova Scotia and a complete visual ethnography of Vicos, Peru in 1954. In 1958 to 1990 he taught 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 San Francisco State University, where he became a full professor.
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 many publications, including Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. Collier's photographs have been included in seminal exhibitions, such as The Family of Man (1955) and The Bitter Years 1931-1941 (1962) at the Museum of Modern Art. John Collier died in 1992, in San Jose, Costa Rica.