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The Incredible Photography of Erwin E. Smith

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Note: This is a placeholder article. I will come back and edit it further.  Traces

From the time he was knee-high to a katydid, Erwin E. Smith knew that he wanted to be a cowboy and an artist. As Erwin was growing up in Bonham, a town in Fannin County in North Texas, the old cowboy ways were disappearing, but the legends and myths were just getting going. In some ways, Smith's desire to be a cowboy was a reflection of the United States as a whole: as the country shifted from an agrarian nation to an assertive industrial power, people looked to the rural past for reassurance. I think they still do ---- hence, Traces of Texas.  And the popular literature, art, and the fledgling film industry of those days promoted an idealized image of the cowboy as a confident, free-spirited, and unassuming hero.  Erwin bought into this mythology whole hog.

As a boy, Smith collected prints of paintings by artists who fueled this trend, including George Catlin, Frederic Remington, and Charles M. Russell. He especially admired Russell, who worked as a cowhand for over a decade, declaring that his work most accurately represented the ranching life. Smith also acquired photographs by Laton Alton Huffman, who captured the life of Montana cowboys from the early 1880s to 1905; Evelyn Cameron, a photographer of early White settlers to Montana; and Charles D. Kirkland, who produced a series called Views of Cowboy Life and the Cattle Business in the 1880s. 

Erwin took every opportunity to gain experience as a working cowboy, spending summers on his uncle's ranch near Quanah, Texas. This property bordered the Great Western Cattle Trail, which thousands of longhorns followed north in the 1880s. But his real interest was in documenting the fading cowboy traditions as the era of the great trail drives was ending, a topic Remington had addressed years earlier in The Fall of the Cowboy, and Smith, having acquired a camera, started capturing it in photographs when he was 12 or 13 years old.

Smith enrolled at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, a renowned art school in the Midwest, from 1905 to 1907, where he apprenticed under the esteemed sculptor Lorado Taft. He then shifted to the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he studied under sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt from 1907 to 1910. Originally intending to utilize his photographs as references for sculptures and paintings, Smith's perception changed during his time in Boston. He realized the inherent artistic and historical value of his images, redirecting his focus entirely towards photography.

Venturing out to other Texas ranches, Smith meticulously documented roundups and daily life scenes. He deliberately sought out expansive ranches reminiscent of the open-range era before the proliferation of barbed wire fences. His lens captured every facet of ranch existence, from cattle management to the leisure moments of cowboys, portraying a diverse cast including chuck wagon cooks and wranglers. Recognizing the unpredictability of ranch work dictated by factors like weather and terrain, Smith adeptly anticipated and adapted to capture pivotal moments, even galloping ahead of the herd to position his equipment for optimal shots.

Occasionally featuring as a cowhand himself, Smith ingeniously orchestrated compositions, sometimes posing while others operated the camera or persuading fellow cowhands to participate in visually compelling setups. He meticulously refined his images, often cropping negatives and occasionally embellishing them with additional details through sketching to enhance their impact. Combining his compositional acumen, artistic flair, and experimental spirit, Smith produced what the Boston Herald hailed as "the finest pictures of range life ever taken."

Beyond his artistic prowess, Smith proved to be a savvy promoter. Inspired by a childhood story, he adopted "Bar Diamond Bar" as his brand, which adorned his photographs featured in popular national publications from 1906 onwards, including writings by George Patullo. In 1911, he ventured into marketing custom albums, offering unique collections of his works for five dollars each. Although initial interest was promising, sluggish production led to delays of up to a year for some customers. However, his fortunes changed in 1916 when he struck a partnership with the Cattle Raisers Association of Texas, enjoying three decades of reproductions of his photographs in their magazine, The Cattleman.


A gorgeous scene on the Turkey Track Ranch in the Texas Panhandle.  The Turkey Track is a historic ranch in Hutchinson and Hansford counties. Erwin E. Smith.jpg

Cowboys  turning in for some shuteye on (probably) either the Matador Ranch or  the SMS Ranch near Stamford, Texas. Circa 1907.  This photo was taken by  noted photographer and genuine working cowboy Erwin Smith.png

cowboys playing craps 1908 Erwin smith Amon Carter.jpg

Circa 1906 photograph of Edwin Sanders, cousin of the photographer, Erwin E. Smith, having trouble with Puddin Foot.jpg

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