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Western Exposure

The photographs of Erwin E. Smith, cowboy photographer

Only a cowboy can truly understand the cowboy way of life. That’s the rule photographer Erwin Smith followed as he learned the rigors of ranching and documented the world of the working cowhand. Once he acquired cowboying skills, he relied on them to earn his access to the wranglers and range bosses and camp cooks who would become the subjects for his art. Even though he studied painting and sculpture in Chicago and Boston, Smith chose photography as the ideal medium to capture the old-time cowboy culture.

From his early years in Bonham, Erwin E. Smith observed that popular American films and literature created an inaccurate image of the American cowboy. The great trail rides were past, the roundups and chuck-wagon cooking and bronc-busting were very much present.

“Smith said he wanted to do with his photography what Charles Russell did with his painting: to maintain a sense of documentary realism by being truthful to the world with work created in an artistically pleasing way,” explains John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, where the definitive collection of Smith’s photographs now resides.

Charles Lohrmann, editor