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The horse wrangler by Erwin E. Smith

Erwin E. Smith Collection

Photographs of American cowboy and ranch life, 1905-12

Prints and Photographs Division

Introduction | The Photographer | Background of the Collection | Arrangement and Access | Reproductions | Permissions | Collection at the Amon Carter Museum


Erwin E. Smith (1886-1947) has been referred to as "one of the greatest photographers of cowboy life who ever lived."(1) He created engaging and action-filled images of cowboys and ranch life that have come to symbolize the universal western cowboy type. Smith's accomplishments as a photographer of cowboy and ranch life at the beginning of the twentieth century are manifest in the more than 1,500 photographic prints in the Prints & Photographs Division's collections.

The Photographer and His Work

Although Smith studied sculpture and painting at two of the best art schools in the country, over time he chose photography as his primary artistic medium.

Self-taught as a teenager, Smith photographed ranch life between 1905 and 1912 in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during his summer vacations from art school. Convinced that this rugged, arcane lifestyle was disappearing in the face of modernization, he created an extensive and often highly romanticized photographic record of the cowboy world he zealously embraced.

His striking photographs show cowboys roping, branding, and herding cattle, riding horses, doing chores, gathering around the chuck wagon, playing cards, and performing in rodeos. Included are many group and individual portraits. Smith also documented--to a much lesser extent--cowgirls, African-American cowboys, Native American wild west show performers and lacrosse players, nesters (traveling farmers and their families), and small town community events.

Although only modestly successful financially, Smith was the first cowboy photographer to receive considerable national exposure through such popular publications as the Saturday Evening Post and Cattleman. Some of his best work stemmed from his association with George Pattullo, a former Boston Herald reporter whose western stories were illustrated by Smith. In 1912 Eastman Kodak Company gave Smith high recognition by using his images to demonstrate the technical excellence that could be achieved with a simple box camera.

Many of Smith's iconographic images are reproduced in J. Evetts Haley's Life on the Texas Range (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1952). A well-illustrated biography, Imagining the Open Range: Erwin E. Smith, Cowboy Photographer (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum) by B. Byron Price appeared in 1998.

Background of the Collection

The Prints & Photographs Division holds Erwin E. Smith photographs that came through two different sources: copyright deposit and gift.

Between 1908 and 1910, Smith submitted vintage photographic prints for copyright. Twenty-seven prints (as well as some duplicates) were later transferred to the Prints and Photographs Division from the U.S. Copyright Office.

In 1949 the Library received nearly 1,600 original glass and nitrate film negatives (comprising the bulk of Smith's entire body of work), from his sister Mary Alice Pettis. Anxious to make the collection available to researchers, the Library quickly made reference copies for most of the images by printing the original negatives.

When the Pettis gift came to the Library, however, the negatives were not organized or labeled beyond cryptic numbers and basic identifications. To make sense of the images, Pettis appealed to George Pattullo, the writer and news correspondent who accompanied Smith on many of his photographic travels (and who probably took the photographs of Smith found in the collection), to assist in the cataloging process. The 70-year old Pattullo studied copies of the photographs sent to him by the Library and provided most of the information used by P&P staff to devise new captions and categories.

In 1986, at the request of Pettis, the Library transferred the original negatives to the Amon Carter Musuem in Fort Worth, Texas, but retained the prints and copy negatives.

Arrangement and Access

The photographic prints are clustered into groups:

LOT 13593

27 photographic prints that Erwin Smith registered at the Library of Congress for copyright purposes between 1908 and 1910. Many of these original copyright prints are similar versions of images in the Pettis gift, described below. [View catalog record]

Erwin E. Smith Collection (Pettis Gift)

Reading Room File

About 1,400 selected mounted photographic prints and copy negatives taken between 1905 and 1912, most documenting American cowboy and ranch life on large ranches in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Filed in Reading Room browsing cabinets and arranged by categories; a few unmounted prints are filed at the end.
LOT 4462
Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show: Thirty-five 5"x7" photographic prints and copy negatives depicting cowboys, American Indians, and other performers in "Pawnee Bill's" [Major Gordon W. Lillie] wild west shows about 1908-10. [View catalog record]
LOT 4463
Rodeos: Forty-four 5"x7" photographic prints and copy negatives show cowboy and cowgirl performers and rodeo action about 1908-10, in Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere. [View catalog record]

Obtaining Reproductions

Photographic prints, negatives, and transparencies made from the copy negatives are available for purchase from the Library's Duplication Services in various sizes and range of quality. Most of the material may also be photocopied or photographed with a hand-held camera.

Permissions and Credits

There are no known restrictions on publication of the Erwin E. Smith photographs that the Library of Congress received through copyright deposit (LOT 13593, see above). Publication of other Erwin E. Smith images is restricted; permission to publish images must be obtained from the Amon Carter Museum (see below).

Erwin E. Smith Collection at the Amon Carter Museum

In 1986 the Library transferred its holdings of original negatives to the Amon Carter Museum. Most of these images and many from other sources can be viewed at their website:

Copyrights are administered by the Museum for the Erwin E. Smith Foundation; permission to publish the images must be obtained from the Museum. The Museum can provide 8" x 10" black-and-white photographic study prints for the purpose of scholarly research. Other formats may be available for rental. The Museum does not provide enlargements of Smith's images nor does it provide copies for purposes other than scholarly research. For permission and fee schedules, contact:

Amon Carter Museum
3501 Camp Bowie Blvd.
Ft. Worth, TX 76107-2695


(1) Rick Stewart, Foreword to Imagining the Open Range by Byron B. Price. Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum, 1998), vii.

Compiled by: Jennifer Brathovde, Reference Specialist. Last revised: October 2004

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  March 16, 2012
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