National Cowboy Hall of Fame

Oklahoma City, OK

(405) 478-2250


Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer

Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer embraces Texas' cowboy heritage with an exhibition in the Grayce B. Kerr Gallery at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center September 26, 1998 through December 27, 1998. The show travels to Oklahoma City from a successful debut at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

A Texas cowboy himself, Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947) depicted life on the open range, with its intriguing interrelationship between humans, horses, and cattle in the early twentieth century. Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer features almost 100 of Smith's finest black and white photographs printed on warm-toned paper. This exhibition pays tribute to the beauty and excitement of Smith's work and the way of life he recorded.

Organized by the Amon Carter Museum, the show is made possible by grants from the Erwin E. Smith Foundation and Chase Bank of Texas.

As a young boy in Fannin County, northeast of Fort Worth, Smith pursued a passion for art and for cowboy life. Daunted at first by the challenge of combining these two loves, he doubted his ability to properly capture the country's beauty. He wrote: "From the first time I laid eyes on the sun burnt 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."

However, after witnessing the rapid changes taking place in the cowboy culture, he felt a mission to record it before this historic ranching tradition completely disappeared. "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 a last resort to recall those stirring scenes."

For almost a decade Smith spent his summers photographing on ranges in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, including the Matador, LD, SMS, Turkey Track, and JA ranches. The body of work he created between 1905 and 1912 remains some ofthe best of its kind. Smith photographed legendary ranch owners, trail bosses, bronc-busters, and cutting horses, and documented the complete scope of ranching activities, including trail drives, spring and fall roundups, daily chores, and recreation around the campsite. Disdaining artists who occasionally falsified or exaggerated aspects of cowboy life, Smith tried to create an authentic record. His images accurately capture the clothing, tools, and other artifacts the cowboy used.

The photographer recorded more than just the factual details of this historic period. As an artist, he was also concerned with evoking the emotional feel of the time and place. Smith's love of cowboy life is revealed in artful compositions and romantic lighting that capture the drama and grace of daily activities. Images like Turning on a Dime show the dance-like movements of the famous cutting horse Doodle Bug as he faces off an obstinate cow. The Dust of the Drags illustrates the working conditions of the least experienced cowboys, who brought up the rear of the heard and regularly breathed the dust kicked up by hundreds of migrating cattle. This photograph also has a romantic duality, turning the dust into a dream-like haze.

The Amon Carter Museum holds the principal collection of Smith's work, including over 5,000 negatives, several albums of prints, and enlargements Smith made in the 1930's. The exhibition will feature this material and loaned images from private collections and from the two other extensive collections of Smith's work, the Nita Stewart Haley Memorial Library in Midland and the Texas Memorial Museum of the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to gelatin silver print photographs, the exhibition will also include graphite and ink sketches, sketchpads, albums, and objects like the artist's saddle and camera.

Accompanying the exhibition is the first comprehensive biography of Smith - the first book on the artist's work since J. Evetts Haley's Life on the Texas Range (1952). The publication, also titled Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer, is authored by B. Byron Price, Director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming. An authority on western American history, Price drew from Smith's archives and the history of southwestern ranch life in the early twentieth century. This 200-page publication (hardcover, $49.95) contains 175 duotone illustrations and is available in Trappings of the West, the museum store.

Other exhibition-related merchandise includes a poster of the popular image Frank Smith watering his horse,Cross-B Ranch, NM 1909-10 (20X24 inches, $15) and individual postcards featuring five different photographs ($.85) each). Telephone orders may be placed by calling (405) 478-2250, ext. 228.

Following the Oklahoma City showing, Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer will travel to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, April 9 - July 4, 1999.

From top to bottom: Emory Sager Catching Up the Mounts, Shoe Bar Ranch, Texas, negative c. 1923, print c. 1936, Texas Memorial Museum; Photographer Erwin E. Smith Eating a Mid-morning Snack of Canned Tomatoes, JA Ranch, c. 1909-10 Amon Carter Museum; Hunting Season at Hand, Matador, negative 1909, print c. 1936, Texas Memorial Museum; Taking Care of Cows, LS Ranch, near Tascosa, TX, negative 1907, prinmt c. 1936, Haley Library

rev. 11/26/10

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