Mountain of Arabia

Posted on Sun, October 9, 2011

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month . See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

In 1934, Joseph Dunlap Mountain, a thirty-two year old former Army Air Service pilot, signed on with the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company (CASOC, now Saudi Aramco) to serve as a pilot, aerial photographer and mechanic on the company’s 1934-’35 survey expedition to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Water Vendor

Water vendor. Al Hofuf, Saudi Arabia, March 19, 1935.
Photograph by Joseph D. Mountain.

The expedition was, of course, looking for oil. In addition to the aerial photographs he took from the expedition’s Fairchild 71 monoplane, Mountain also snapped hundreds of other photographs, making a fascinating document of the desert kingdom at the very edge of the tremendous changes that the petroleum era brought to the Gulf. The images are a fascinating record of traditional Saudi Arabian life, crafts and architecture. Mountain photographed portraits of dancers at Eid al-Fitr celebrations, market scenes in Hofuf and the Old Town of Al Jubayl, camel caravans, Saudi hunters with their hawks, and pearl fishermen and their dhows. Mountain also extensively photographed members of the CASOC expedition – Art Brown, Hugh Burchiel, J. W. (Soak) Hoover, Russell Gerow, Dick Kerr, Schuyler (Krug) Henry and Max Steineke – at work and relaxing with their Saudi co-workers and acquaintances.  

Later, Joseph Mountain flew as a pilot for Trans World Airlines. During World War II, he returned to active duty with the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was awarded the Bronze Star while serving in the China-Burma-India Theater and supervising supply missions over “The Hump” – the dangerous air route over the Himalaya Range. After the war, Mountain worked in the nascent computer industry and founded a computer manufacturing company and a data processing firm. Joseph Mountain died on November 25, 1970 at the age of 68, and his family donated his photographs, diaries and flight log books, reports, and maps to the National Air and Space Museum. His Saudi photographs can be viewed online – portraits of an exotic, but not so distant past.


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