Smith was always sketching cowboys and Indians as a youth. Inspired by popular literature and art depicting western scenes, he collected prints of paintings by such artists as George Catlin, Frederic Remington, and Charles M. Russell. He also acquired the work of cowboy photographers like Laton Alton Huffman and Evelyn Cameron from Montana and C. D. Kirkland of Wyoming. Smith attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1907, one of the best art schools in the Midwest, where he studied with the noted sculptor Lorado Taft (1860–1936). He then transferred to the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where, from 1907 to 1910, he studied with sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt (1867–1917).
Smith initially intended to use his photographs as studies for sculptures and paintings, but in time he saw that the photographs were both historical documents and works of art in themselves. While photographing on the range, Smith always carried small notebooks for jotting down ideas for pictures and making rough sketches. He would convince cowhands to pose in "artistic" ways to create good compositions. After making his exposures, he often cropped the negatives to produce more pleasing compositions. He even experimented with sketching additional details onto some of the negatives and prints to improve the image. His understanding of composition, his artistic talent, and his willingness to experiment all coalesced to produce what one contemporary critic called "the finest pictures of range life ever taken."
Erwin E. Smith (1886–1947)
Hunting Season at Hand [Harry Campbell and George Pattullo], Matador Ranch, Texas, 1909
Gelatin dry plate negative
Erwin E. Smith Collection of the Library of Congress on deposit at the Amon Carter Museum