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Borderlands: Otis A. Aultman Captured Border History in Pictures 21 (2002-2003)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Otis A. Aultman Captured Border History in Pictures

Article first published in Vol. 21 (2002-2003)

By Aurora Nuñez and Amanda Taylor

Amidst the thundering noise of mounted soldiers engaging in battle, one small man calmly set down his tripod and balanced his camera. Ignoring the bullets zipping by him, he pulled a focusing cloth over his head and took his picture. Reversing the order of his preparations, he folded up his tripod and ran after the troops to find another perfect photo.

Despite the killing around him during the Mexican Revolution, Otis A. Aultman was only concerned about his photographs. Capturing faces, feelings and unforgettable moments, Aultman immortalized border history, recording it through his cameras.


Image caption: Otis Aultman captured scenes from the Mexican Revolution for posterity. Courtesy of El Paso Historical Society

Obscurity surrounds Aultman's early years. He was born in Holden, Missouri, on August 27,1874. His father was a Union Army Veteran. His mother suffered from tuberculosis, and in 1887, they moved to Trinidad, Colorado, after a brief stay in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The love of photography ran in the family. At a young age, Otis learned the trade from his older brother Oliver, who was self-taught. Oliver's love of photography turned into a gratifying career: he and Otis opened a photography studio in Trinidad.

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A collection at Colorado State Historical Society contains many of Oliver's pictures of the Trinidad vicinity. Oliver passed down his studio in Colorado to his son Glenn.

Otis Aultman married Lela Whiscarver, and they had two children: Lela May and William. His daughter Lela wrote to Mary Sarber, author of Photographs from the Border that when her parents' marriage ended in 1908, she was eight years old and William was only two. Lela believes financial problems created irreconcilable differences. Aultman never remarried.

After the divorce, Aultman moved to El Paso, where he soon found a job with Scott Photography. With El Paso the foreign headquarters of the Mexican Revolution, Aultman soon found a fertile subject for his cameras.

International News Services and Pathé News provided Aultman with the exciting challenge of photographing the anti-American Pancho Villa. According to Aultman's scrapbook, now in the possession of the El Paso Historical Society, he tracked down Villa despite much interference from the federal forces, even being arrested in the process Under the pressure of knowing how anxious Pathé was for the picture, he took a chance and went to San Pedro, where Villa was expected. He found him at last, only to be turned down. Villa said, " I will not allow any Gringo to make pictures of me. I don't want my picture shown in the United States. I want my friends, the Mexicans, to make all the money there is to be made by taking pictures of me."

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Full length photo of Pancho VillaBegging and pleading only upset Villa and didn't get Aultman very far. Attempting to bribe Villa's photographer also failed, but then a government photographer showed up.

Aultman had previously befriended this photographer and now talked him into taking a couple of pictures with one of Aultman's cameras. Finally someone shouted, "That's the Gringo's camera!" putting a stop to further efforts. But Aultman did become Villa's official photographer and friend.

Image caption: Portrait of Francisco "Pancho" Villa    Photo courtesy of the Aultman Collection,  El Paso Public Library via

Aultman went through the entire revolutionary campaign capturing many of Villa's rebel activities. Author Larry A. Harris tells us that Villa considered Aultman a firebrand and an indigenous rebel. Villa called Aultman "Banty Rooster", reflecting his 5'4" height and fearlessness.

Aultman won Villa's trust through their long travels together and enjoyed the luxury of a darkroom in a boxcar that Villa had set up for foreign correspondents. Aultman worked with some of the best known war correspondents while they traveled with Villa, including Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune, John Reed of the New York World, and Alfred Henry Lewis of the Hearst newspapers.

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Many other revolutionary figures including Francisco Madero and Pascual Orozco routinely visited El Paso. Aultman took pictures of Madero and his troops across the Rio Grande from ASARCO. He shot photos of Villa and his troops entering Juárez in the 1911 battle and recorded General Navarro's subsequent surrender to Madero's men.

Aultman captured more than just the horror and glory of war; he captured the aftermath. In 1916, he was one of the first photographers to arrive at Columbus, N. M., after Pancho Villa's attack. Harris says, "He drove 75 miles from El Paso in record time; the town was still smoldering ruins and people still hysterical."

Aultman continued to cover Mexico, but now accompanying General John Pershing who led 5,000 troops in the $8 million  Punitive Expedition  into Mexico in search of Villa. The expedition ended 11 months later, in February 1917, freeing Aultman to pursue other things.

After the Mexican Revolution came to an end in 1920, Aultman settled in El Paso as a commercial photographer in a shop at 204 San Francisco Street. He became the official photographer for the racetrack in Juárez, taking pictures of winning horses and behind the scene activities. Aultman did photographic work for El Paso architects Trost and Trost. Working briefly in Hollywood as a cameraman, Aultman also supposedly worked for the U.S. Secret Service.

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Interested in archeological and history, he became the vice-president of the El Paso Archeological Society. His photographs include Indian pictographs at Hueco Tanks as well as historical buildings like the Grecian Theater, the El Paso County Court House and the Carnegie Library.

Among his photos are ordinary scenes of life in El Paso, as well as the surrounding mountains and desert. He photographed Fort Bliss parades and maneuvers in the Big Bend area during the 1920s and recorded momentous visits to El Paso by figures such as President William Howard Taft and Porfirio Díaz.

Scrapbook with photos of heads of members pasted onto body sketches and a photo of the clubAultman formed the Adventurers Club, an informal groups of soldiers of fortune, correspondents and military leaders he had met in his work and travel. The forty or so men, including General John J. Pershing, played cards and socialized whenever two or more happened to be in El Paso. He and Tracy Richardson, soldier of fortune in the Mexican Revolution and member of the Adventurer's Club, explored Mayan ruins in Honduras.

The West fascinated Aultman. In an early interview, he said his boyhood ambition had been "to be a cowboy and ride a fiery horse." Instead, his pictures of the Southwest illustrate many historical books. Though he refused to do formal portraits, many people posed informally for him, including Tigua and Mescalero Apaches.


Image caption:  Caricatures and photos show members of the El Paso Adventurers Club, including photographer Otis Aultman. Courtesy of El Paso County Historical Society via 

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Harris describes Aultman as "wiry, short and wizened with a constant need of a haircut, wrinkled and ageless." And he boasted quite a sense of humor. Harris writes of a meeting between Aultman and a stranger at a restaurant.

After staring at the stranger for quite some time, he walked up to him and said, "Mister, I want to shake your hand. Until now, I have been called the ugliest man in El Paso, and have accepted that dubious honor gracefully. However, I have been looking at you since you came in and this is a happy moment for me. I'm conferring my title upon you from now on. Any fair-minded judge will back me up. You are unquestionably the ugliest man in El Paso." From that night on, the two men became good friends.

On March 6, 1943, Otis Aultman's life tragically came to an end when he fell from a seven-foot platform into the alleyway by his shop. An El Paso Times article wrote that the "tribute of an aged man for his deceased friend, with whom he had been closely associated for 35 years, left hardly a dry eye in the Martin Chapel," describing the eulogy by engineer E. C. Erdis.

The El Paso Chamber of Commerce bought Aultman's collection of 6,000 negatives after several disappeared from his shop. They remained in storage until the 1960s when prints were made and historians C. L. Sonnichsen and M. G. McKinney identified the photographs. Sets of prints were placed in the Public Library Downtown and UTEP.

El Pasoans undoubtedly have seen Aultman's photographs in books, magazine articles, exhibits, and museums without knowing the man behind the camera referred to in the cutline "courtesy of the Aultman Collection." He took some of the same risks as soldiers did, but when he shot, he used his camera. He recorded the ordinary and the extraordinary, enabling us to take a peek at the past and see history as it was being made. His photographs help us to visualize the rich history of our region 100 years later.

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Tags: biography



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