A Life of Work and Action Not Heroics
Bonham Daily Favorite, July 24, 1994
Several weeks ago In, thin column there appeared several Sketches on the Erwin family with special emphasis an Erwin Evans Smith, Fannin County native and famed western photographer around the turn of the century.
Since that time I have been able to secure a copy of a magazine article, on Smith’s artistry, written by his boyhood friend Harry Peyton Stager, The article appeared in the January, 1900 issue of “World's Work" Magazine, entitled “Photographing the Cowboy As He Disappears,"
Stager's writing reveals much of the genius that Smith had with the camera and in many ways answers some of the questions about the enigma which was Erwin Evans Smith. Today this column will be turned over to guest columnist, Harry Peyton Steger, who wilt be discussed in an upcoming edition of "Bois d’Arc Sketches."
In a collection of more than two thousand photographs that have cost him eight years of work and patience, Mr. Erwin E. Smith hat recorded the cowboy of today. From this material it will be possible at a time when the last ranch is sold up Into small farms, to reconstruct any moving incident in the old West. Each photograph that he had taken permanently pictures something that will serve in
later years as material for heroic canvases and marbles -which he hopes himself ultimately to execute. He is now a student in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, carrying out in study the second step In his plan to make himself a final and full authority in art an the passing West. "I knew that tho life wouldn't wait and that the technique would. So I put off Boston as long as I could."
Mr. Smith's claim to attention at present lies in what he had already accomplished. Until less than two years ago, his life had been almost entirely that of a cowboy. Before he knew how to use a camera he was thoroughly familiar with the life of the prairies from having lived it. Everything that a cowboy does he has done in regular employment. He has been a working member of “the outfit," and was familiar with the ranges of The Matadors, the XIT, the IS, Bar W, The Blocks, the Turkey Tracks, the JA, the LIT, the Three Nines, the O.X., and numerous other smaller ranges. As a cowboy he has worked on the Three Circles, the JCS, and the V-Pigpens. Of late years he has traveled all over cattle districts of Texas and New Mexico in a search for photographs of historical and artistic value. They are already hard to find,
Ten years from today there will not be in the United States a single cattle ranch of more than one thousand acres. The cowboy will have become a historic figure. Today, in Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and all other cattle states the tendency is toward the small farm, owned and managed by individual farmers on a small intensive plan. Today there are in Texas only six or seven ranches of one million acres or more.
The pioneer cattlemen wait a plunger, an erratic figure who fortune was changing as that of the early miner. Now he has the system and organization of today that make a small level profit out of business.
With the ranch goes that cattleman and the cowboy. In comes the stack farmer, whom his predecessors called a “nester." On the new plan herds are kept within fences and fed in small pastures, Cattle that see humans regularly become tractable and can be led about by the horn. So there is no need here of the remuda, the round up, the chuck wagon, the night wrangler, and the stray man; branding, roping, cutting-out have no longer a place in the day’s work.
The cowboy will not become a farmer. In fact, he can not. The cowboy will pass, as the buffalo hunter has passed, and it is left for the camera to make him a historic and not legendary figure,
The real cowboy is essentially a worker as he is seen in Mr. Smith's pictures. He is no longer the isolated figure, the adventurer, the care-free, fringed bearded giant that his imaginative delineators, relying solely on their artistic abilities and possessing no intimate, firsthand knowledge of him, have given us in literature, art, and on the stage.
Mr. Smith knows that this life is a life of work and action, not of fancy garb and heroics. His collection of photographs makes this irrefutable, and gives the lie to idealizing fictionists to whom a mistake of detail is not so grave a mistake as it should be. During the past eight years he roped, cut-out, branded, doctored, or rode the range on tours of inspection; he has always carried with him a camera and a tripod strapped to his saddle alongside his rope. Whenever there was a lull in work, he made it a practice to ride over miles of range in search for typical spots where a picture of the herd, the “remuda“, the chuck wagon, or, perhaps the "cut-bunch" might be both truthful and most perfect in its pictorial composition. The colossal patience and the fortunate possession of a pictorial senna have made it possible for him to secure the best and most complete photographic record of the cowboy that has ever been made.
What gives Mr, Smith's collection its rarer reliability in his intimate knowledge of the life he is recording. When a bad horse is giving trouble or a calf is roped out of the herd for branding, the expert photographers from the outer world might fail time and time again get “the" picture simply because he could not know what was going to happen.
I produced a photograph of Frederic Remington's well-known bronze statue "The Bronco Buster." I asked him if he had a photograph of the incident. "I don’t know what the horse is going to do," he replied, looking at it.” The man who did that is an artist, of course, but he's not a cowboy. To me the horse expresses no intention, no action, no direction. I'm almost ready to say that the position of the horse's knees in this statue is impossible. I never saw anything like It. Anyhow, whether he rearing or pitching, he ought to tuck his tail. Any cowboy will tell you that a horse in action - especially in action that opposes the rider - never brandishes his tail."
It is a tribute to the detailed accuracy of his knowledge in the smallest things pertaining to ranch life that actors who are presenting the western plays in vogue just now have been glad to get his assistance. Some have learned from his pictures that no old-time cowboy dents his hat; he wears it undented in a high crowned style. Dustin Farnum was aided in his aim at thoroughness by an inspection of the collection of photographs.
These photographs have been selected for their artistic qualities and for the illumination that they throw on the work-a-day life of the old West that is soon to pass. Whether the man who took them succeeds as a painter and sculptor, he has already done a work of great importance.
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas