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Beginning in 1904, and for more than a dozen years thereafter, photographer Erwin Smith joined other young men as a cowhand on the western range. Saddled with romantic notions drawn from popular literature—the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill and the art of Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington—young Erwin Smith feared the cowboy way of life that had captivated him as a child was disappearing. He resolved to preserve what was left with a camera. Smith's determined efforts yielded a stunning body of photography that, in time, became synonymous with both the myth and reality of cowboys and ranches in the Southwest.

Smith's photographs of cowboy life follow in the long tradition that began with a mountain man and evolved into a cowboy in the late 1880s. Theodore Roosevelt, writing about the cowboys in 1888, lauded their "stern, manly qualities that are valuable to a nation." In the same period, other traits emerged that were said to fit this new type of hero, including a "sensitive pride,"

 
Artist unknown
Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Rough Riders, 1908
Color lithograph
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1969.174


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an "aggressive spirit of independence," always "generous to a fault," and bound by a "primitive code of honor." All these elements were in place by 1887, when one writer observed that the cowboy had already passed from being a picturesque character to one more centered in myth.

By the end of the nineteenth century the myth of the Old West was firmly established in virtually every sphere of the American experience. An important phase in the nation's history—the settlement of the frontier—began to be widely perceived as a thing of the past. America was shifting from an agrarian nation to an assertive industrial power. The rise of a broad middle-class readership fostered a large audience for historical romance, and many writers responded to the demand with stories that created a golden West comprised of noble individuals in a majestic landscape. Both western artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell created images that illuminated the myth of the western experience. This imaginary world was in stark contrast to the grim realities of urban existence then underway, and the rise of the Hollywood film industry would soon increase the urge to escape the pressures of the present. The herald of the new age of heroes was Owen Wister's book, The Virginian, published in 1902. Here was the classic western hero: a natural nobleman, formed out of the goodness of the land. He was confident, free-spirited, independent, uncompromising in his integrity, and above all unassuming. Like all the heroes before him, he personified mythical traits of individual freedom and boundless enterprise that still captivate audiences today.

In the early twentieth century, at a time of great confusion over the upheaval of current events, many people began to view the Old West in a nostalgic way as some kind of golden age of America's youth and innocence. In their view the frontier was an arena of romance and adventure, a land of individual freedom and unlimited opportunity. Thus the myths were born, myths that artists like Remington and Russell helped perpetuate in their works. These romantic works reveal much about the period in which they were created, just as their continuing popularity illuminates an important segment of society today.

Starting in 1906, Erwin E. Smith's photographs were featured in popular national magazines, and they appeared regularly in Cattleman magazine through the 1940s. Smith's photographs, showing both the romance and the hard life of the cowboy, include some of the best-known images of Southwestern range life.

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