See Exhibits Archive

Postcards from Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves

14 Sep 2022 - 29 Oct 2022

Lula and Susie captioned this photo “Susanita and Ramona,” their assumed names in their Wild West
personas.Unknown photographer: Unknown. Warner Graves Collection.

Postcards from Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves features photographs from cousins Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves who documented prospectors, burro packers, aqueduct surveyors and nomads in the desert east of California’s Salton Sea for postcard spinner racks. The exhibition presents portraits of a mysterious land, along with the story of its heroic chroniclers, self-taught documentary photographers of the 1920s and ’30s.

Cousins Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves couldn’t have been more different. While Susie was charismatic and talkative, Lula was solemn and silent. Susie was disabled by childhood polio; Lula suffered years of childhood neglect. But, after Susie took a job as postmaster in Mecca, on the edge of California’s Salton Sea, she and Lula set out to photograph the last of the prospectors, burro packers and stage stops in the remote desert to the east. They traveled by burro, foot and Ford though sandy washes and roadless canyons, armed with a .38 revolver and a large format camera. Together, they took photographs and made postcards to sell on spinner racks from Yuma to Beaumont, and became Western heroines.

Upon Susie’s death in 1988, a county worker in charge of her estate tossed her photos into a dumpster. A savvy archaeologist jumped into the sticky dumpster, rescuing many of the images in the exhibition. Now, visitors to Postcards from Mecca can discover a fascinating history that was almost lost – a story of two intrepid women, an untapped desert wilderness, and their adventures within it.

Postcards from Mecca is based on the book edited by Ann Japenga and Warner V. Graves III, originated at the La Quinta Museum, and is traveled by Exhibit Envoy.

About Exhibit Envoy

Exhibit Envoy is a nonprofit with the mission to provide institutions with meaningful and diverse traveling exhibitions to strengthen their communities. Exhibit Envoy tours 30+ exhibitions throughout California, and across the United States. For more information, visit exhibitenvoy.org.

Corn Springs petroglyphs, 1930. Lula Mae Graves photograph. Warner Graves Collection.
Postcard showing Mt. San Jacinto from Devil's Garden. Susie Keef Smith photograph. Steve Lech Collection.
Susie Keef Smith (seated in car) and Lula Mae Graves drove much of the Bradshaw Trail in Susie's Model T in 1930. Unknown photographer. Warner Graves Collection.
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  • Date: 14 Sep 2022 - 29 Oct 2022
  • Location:Yucca Valley
  • Curators:Postcards from Mecca is based on the book edited by Ann Japenga and Warner V. Graves III, originated at the La Quinta Museum, and is traveled by Exhibit Envoy.
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