The Remington of the Camera
Bonham Daily Favorite, May 22, 1994
In some respects Western photography of the first two decades of this century have been overshadowed by the more colorful paintings of Remington, Russell, and others. But there was a time when certain photographic essays taken with some of the crudest of equipment enjoyed a popularity among those with a real appreciation for these western representations but whose financial restraints precluded ownership of a Remington and the like.
Among the more popular practitioners of the camera's art was a Fannin County native, Erwin Evans Smith, great grandson of pioneer settler Samuel A. Erwin. As Smith's artistry has attracted attention from time to time, more than one critic/writer has called him the 'Remingten of the camera.*' An appellation that fits so well with an examination of some of his most exciting photographs. Even to the untrained eye, the western paintings seem to be frozen in time in contrast to Smith's photos which have an inherent motion In them.
Erwln Smith was born at Honey Grove August 22, 1885, but spent most of his childhood and youth in Bonham. Smith's childhood was typical of that of a small boy growing up in Texas with dreams and play of a boy steeped in the legend and folklore of the frontier.
His childhood friend, mentor, and Bonham legend Harry Peyton Steger once described their first meeting. "Erwin wore the nine year old boy's terrific adaptation of what his vivid imagination tells him cowboys wear." The two boys spent muchof their free time atop the backs of family saddle horses, racing through the streets of Bonham to the edge of the prairelands just out of town.
As a boy he received a simple box camera and quickly became enamored of the imaginative things he could accomplish with this basic device. From an early age he had been frequently sent to his uncle's ranch in Foard County where he experiences first hand the rigors of life on the range. He soon began to photograph the things and events that constituted this life celebrated in many a legend, and campfire tale.
By his teens he was a fairly accomplished rancher and keen observer of the western life. A serious bout with typhoid necessitated a return to Bonham for an extended of convalescence. As soon as he received his physician's approval he was back on the rangelands with his camera equipment in tow.
Through his uncles' influence Smith was able to work with and observe some of the most noted ranching operations in Texas, the Three Circles, the V Pigpens, OSx and R2s. His observations and photographs took him deeper into the life of the cowboy which he relished every waking hour.
He studied the works of many western painters especially Charles Russell whom he considered to be the greatest of the western artists despite the fact that his own photographic work was often compared to another great painter Frederic Remington.
In his late teens, Smith, becoming somewhat dissatisfied with his photography, decided that his contribution to preserving the western heritage would be through sculpture. He traveled to Chicago where he arranged for study under the noted American sculptor Lorade Taft.
Two years of intensive training gave him many of the basic skills and he was much inspired by his mentor. However, he still felt some sense of dissatisfaction because Taft's emphasis was on the traditional classic lines which allowed him little freedom to express what he knew best, the American West.
Taft then recommended that Smith enroll at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where a course of study more suited to his interest and talents was available. By this time Smith was longing for the cattle country far to the southwest and Boston held little appeal for him.
Before he left Chicago he acquired more sophisticated photographic equipment with an Eastman screen-focus Kodak and a Goera lends. The thought of becoming a sculptor had to wait, Smith met out to photograph every aspect of the vanishing west that he now knew so well.
It is believed that Smith never had any formal training in photography. His sister, Mary Alice Pettis once told me that he was born with a photographer's eye for composition, contrast, and design, and all that was necessary was for Smith to be i the surroundings he loved to put these talents to work.
His work appears simple and to the point. On first viewing an Erwin Smith photograph one is not struck by any key dramatic element as in an Ancel Adams work. But upon closer examination it becomes evident that each key component in his work merge beautifully to create the whole
For much of 1907 he ranged through Texas ranches pursuing his photographic dream. Finally satisfied that he had managed to capture most of what he sought, he packed his luggage with samples of his photographic artistry and journeyed to Boston and enrolled in a program at the Fine Arts Museum in the fall.
This tall, lanky, rawboned Texan soon attracted attention not only at the Boston Museum but also on the streets of the city. Soon his artistry was to be the talk of Boston.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas