In 1879 the Bureau of Ethnology (later changed to the Bureau of American Ethnology) was created under the Department of the Interior. With the Smithsonian Institution appointed as administrator, John Wesley Powell became the first director, and Hillers, who had previously worked for Powell, was hired as staff photographer. In 1871 Hillers signed on as a boatman for the second Powell expedition down the Colorado River. Assisting the expedition photographers Edward O. Beaman and Walter Powell, he subsequently became Powell's expedition photographer in 1872.
Hillers continued the work of the surveys, but his emphasis shifted from georgraphy and geology to archaeology and ethnology. His portraits of the Hopi (Moki) and Navajo, as well as photographs of architecture, domestic life, and rituals, were used by the bureau to record traditional ways of life and supplement material collections. Often he contrasts the details of a site with the more abstract and spacious idea of history. In his photograph of Hopi Mesa (or the First Mesa, as it was named by the Spaniards on their trek north from Mexico in the sixteenth century), domestic details such as the drying of peaches, as well as a chimney funnel made from an old pot, crowd the near foreground. Taken from Hano pueblo, the photograph shows Sichomovi pueblo in the middle distance. At the most distant point is Walpi pueblo, site of the sacred Antelope-Snake Ceremony.
Merry A. Foresta American Photographs: The First Century (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)