Stick-thin, clean-shaven, and with soft features, Erwin Smith hardly cut the weather-beaten figure of the West Texas cowboys he so admired. Not that it mattered much. When Smith stood behind the camera, lens focused on the cowpunchers of the American Southwest, the results earned him a national reputation as the photographer of, as the Boston Herald put it in January 1908, “the finest pictures of range life ever taken.”
Born August 22, 1886, in a freckle of a town called Honey Grove in North Texas, Erwin moved to nearby Bonham when he was eight years old. Smith grew up in a decadent home, but in the summers, he spent time on his uncle’s ranch farther west. Fascinated by cowboy culture, his jaunts to Foard County offered Smith first-hand experience with the men he once called, writing in his journal, “wandering knights of the plains.”
Though captivated by the frontier life, Smith couldn’t ignore the seeds of change. “The signs were everywhere,” writes B. Bryon Price, author of Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer, “in ranches giving way to farms, open range to cross-fencing, and feral cattle to domesticated varieties.” Not yet 20, Smith vowed to document the ranching life—the cowboy, not the caricature—before it was too late. “My only means now to set them before my eyes and the public’s once more,” he wrote in his journal in 1905, a few months before enrolling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, “is to place them on canvas with paint and brush.”
Afraid there’d be nothing left to paint by the time he finished school, he purchased an Eastman Screen Focus Kodak and spent several months shooting pictures of the West Texas ranching outfits. He sold his first prints for $15 to National Magazine, who called them “uncommonly good,” kicking off an unexpected career in photography.
Between 1905 and 1912, Smith published photographs of the range in the country’s most relevant and widely circulated magazines. Though he made a second attempt at a formal art education in 1907, he ultimately came to see photography as an art in itself, not simply a means to capture his subjects before he could render them with a brush. Judging by the early acclaim of his work, the rest of the country seemed to agree.
Smith spent his last years struggling to manage his family’s farmland in Bonham and find a publisher for a collection of his photos and, in truth, found little success with either.
On Sept. 4, 1947, Smith died of pancreatic cancer. Of course, in what seems a familiar story for under-appreciated artists, Smith’s collection found a publisher after his death. In 1952, the University of Texas Press released Life on the Texas Range to positive reviews. “Along with Andy Adams, Philip Ashton Rollins, Ross Santee, and the artist Charles M. Russell,” wrote the Saturday Review, “Erwin Smith belongs in the great tradition of interpreters of the real cowboy.”