John Running, at 77; noted photographer

John Running on the Colorado River in 2010.
Northern Arizona University via Associated Press
John Running on the Colorado River in 2010.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — An Arizona man celebrated for the humanity that was showcased in his photographs of people across the Colorado Plateau and the world has died.

John Running died Sunday of complications from a brain tumor at his Flagstaff home, said his daughter, Raechel Running. He was 77.

His love of people, places and their cultures took him down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, to Mexico to photograph the Tarahumara, and across the United States to highlight what he saw as injustices against Native Americans. He photographed children near the sea in Trinidad and honored another photographer with pictures of farmers, fishermen, homemakers, and children in Scotland.


Mr. Running briefly aspired to be a geologist before pawning a 12-gauge shotgun his father gave him on his 12th birthday to buy a camera while working in the New Mexico oil fields. He honed photography while serving in the US Marine Corps, developing photos under the cover of a blanket in his bunk. He analyzed lunar images with the US Geological Survey, produced training films for astronauts and, in 1967, won a photography contest in Flagstaff, where he had moved with his first wife, Helen. The two met while Mr. Running was stationed in Trinidad and had two children — Raechel and John Paul.

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Throughout decades, Mr. Running mentored aspiring photographers at his downtown Flagstaff studio, which closed a few years ago. He was known for intimate portraits of Navajos and Hopis who were displaced from each other’s land in one of the largest relocation efforts in US history. He saw a similar story line in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and traveled there with Sue Bennett, a photographer who became his romantic partner, to document people’s lives.

Mr. Running’s photos also became album covers for Canyon Records, an independent label specializing in Native American music. Owner Robert Doyle said Mr. Running was the only photographer he would hire for more than 15 years because he was confident Mr. Running understood tribal culture and reservation life, he was generous and people felt comfortable around him.

‘‘Part of the Canyon mission was to present our artists not as ethnic artists but as human beings, for people to take away their ethnic lens,’’ Doyle said. ‘‘That’s one thing I learned from John was to discard the ethnic lens, to see people, the humanity, the individual.’’

Born in Buffalo in 1939, Mr. Running made his first trip to the Southwest as a Boy Scout in his teenage years. He later graduated from Northern Arizona University in 1969 with an anthropology degree.


His photos of cowboys, women body builders, corporate executives and pow wows landed in annual reports, calendars, advertisements, magazines and books. Mr. Running donated his collection to Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library in 2014 — some 20 million images, archivist Jonathan Pringle said. Some of the collection is digitized, including a timeline of Mr. Running’s life and journal entries.

The library is hopeful the collection will give people a glimpse of the work that went into Mr. Running’s photos.

‘‘I’m always really optimistic that they want to dig a little deeper and learn about the context,’’ Pringle said. ‘‘And there is such strength in his pictures.’’

Navajos from Big Mountain who have resisted efforts to relocate from Hopi land were among Mr. Running’s most consistent subjects. Percy Deal grew up there and said Mr. Running and his first wife were interested in Navajo women’s connection to sheep, wool, and weaving.

But as they learned more about an inter-tribal land dispute that forced thousands to be displaced, Mr. Running photographed the families through generations — some of whom would show up in Mr. Running’s downtown Flagstaff studio looking for him or images of relatives — and became family. The studio also hosted Navajo weaving workshops.


Raechel Running said her mother’s own heritage, gentle nature, and a shared vision for cultural diversity, environmental stewardship, and understanding helped her father in tribal communities. The couple split when Mr. Running became involved with Bennett, who died in 2003.

Mr. Running married jeweler and rock climber, Shelley Claude, in 2012.

No formal memorial services are planned. Doyle said he will honor Mr. Running’s work by adding it to a traveling museum exhibit on Canyon Records.

Raechel Running said she was in a thrift shop in Tucson the day before her father died when she spotted a book with a photo of a Hopi maiden on the binding. She knew immediately it was her father’s for the same reasons she recognized a photo of a Navajo woman at an anti-war demonstration in San Francisco years ago — ‘‘the light in the eyes, the dignity of the people.’’

‘‘In death we get to reclaim his light,’’ she said.