Erwin Evans Smith, often referred to as “one of the greatest photographers of cowboy life,” created engaging and action-filled images of cowboys and ranch life that have come to symbolize the universal western cowboy type.
Born on August 22, 1886, in Honey Grove, Texas, his family relocated to Bonham, Texas, when he was just a child. There, he was introduced to cowboys and cattle ranching, spending summers on his uncle’s ranch near Quanah, Texas. Showing talent while still very young, he began to sketch and paint the ranching life he became fascinated with. By this time, the era of the great trail drives was over, and he feared that the old ways of the cowboy were disappearing. Later, he would write of these early years, saying: “From the first time I laid eyes on the sunburnt plains of the West, with its grand scenery, I have been in love with its still, enchanted solitude. Its change of colors no artist can portray.”
As a teenager, he worked as a cowhand and carried a camera to document the lives of cowboys, presenting as true a portrayal as possible. Of this period, Smith would say, “As well as I like works of art, I don’t believe I would have resorted to art as a profession if it had not been for the disappearance of Western life, which awakened in me a desire to dedicate my observations, as it is the last resort to recall those stirring scenes.”
In 1904, Smith left Texas for Chicago, Illinois, where he studied sculpture under Lorado Taft. He also studied under Bella Lyon Pratt in Boston during the early 1900s. He also studied painting but eventually chose photography to preserve a record of the open-range life.
Between 1905 and 1912, Smith spent his summers photographing on the ranges in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, creating a body of work that remains some of the best of its kind. During this time, he documented ranch owners, trail bosses, bronc-busters, and the cowboy’s day-to-day life, including trail drives, roundups, chores, and recreation. He was not impressed with artists and photographers who exaggerated and romanticized cowboy life. He tried to create an authentic record, which accurately captured the lifestyle, from daily life to clothing and tools.
In 1908, 40 of his photographs were shown in Boston, which led to a collaboration with the Sunday editor of the Boston Herald, George Pattullo, who wrote western stories published in popular magazines and were accompanied by Smith’s photographs. Two of these included Saturday Evening Post and Cattleman. Though he was the first cowboy photographer to receive considerable national exposure, he was only modestly financially successful. In 1912, the Eastman Kodak Company gave Smith high recognition by using his images to demonstrate the technical excellence achieved with a simple box camera.
In 1914 Smith returned to Texas to start his own ranch. Unfortunately, the ranch failed, and he was bankrupt by 1917. He spent the remainder of his life living quietly outside of Bonham, Texas. However, he continued to use his camera for the rest of his life. He was never married. In Bonham, Texas, Smith died on September 4, 1947, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Honey Grove. More than 10,000 photographs were in Smith’s collection when he died.
Smith’s thousands of photographs show cowboys roping, branding, and herding cattle, riding horses, doing chores, gathering around the chuck wagon, playing cards, and performing in rodeos. Included are many group and individual portraits. Smith also documented–to a much lesser extent–cowgirls, African-American cowboys, Native American wild west show performers, lacrosse players, nesters (traveling farmers and their families), and small-town community events.
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, holds Smith’s work’s principal collection.