the first wave of commercial photographers set up shop in small towns
and large cities across the state early in the 20th century, W.D.
Smithers took his camera where other photographers didn't bother to
tread -to the remote mountains of the Big
Bend region and into Mexico
where he grew up.
Wilfred Dudley Smithers was born in San Louis Potosi, Mexico in 1895,
the son of a bookkeeper for an American mining company. The family
moved to San Antonio
in 1905, but the young Smithers never completely left the borderlands
In San Antonio, he
learned the nuts and bolts of photography working in the Charles Archer
photography studio, and he took a camera with him when he went to
work on an Army mule train in 1915. If you ever see a picture of pack
mules in the Big
Bend, odds are good that Smithers took it.
By 1920 Smithers was back in San
Antonio, hustling photographs to San
Antonio newspapers and wire services and running his own small
studio. Most Americans were eager to get on with the future, which
seemed so promising in the Roaring Twenties, but Smithers kept looking
back to a vanishing way of life along the Texas borderlands.
In 1928, while on an assignment, he met Elmo and Ada Johnson at Castolon,
a trading post on the Rio Grande. The meeting turned out to be one
of mutual fascination. The Johnsons were taken by the itinerant photojournalist,
and Smithers was impressed with Johnson's ranch on the river and the
photo opportunities it presented.
"Seeing that riverside setting, he foresaw the fulfillment of a lifelong
dream to live permanently in a region 'like San Luis's nature's great
domain' and conduct an in-depth study into the life and culture of
the Mexican people," Smithers' friend Kenneth Ragsdale later wrote
of Smithers' reaction to the place.
Aviation and aerial photography also fascinated Smithers, and he helped
bring an Army air corps base to the area - to the Johnson's ranch,
actually - where Smithers constructed a unique half adobe dugout and
a solar-powered darkroom. Over the course of his career, Smithers
produced more than 9,000 prints, chronicling folk healers, avisadores,
Mexican traders, goat herders, farmers, laborers, families and their
homes - all delivered with no embellishment, no apologies.
"My photography should direct itself to historical and transient subjects
- vanishing lifestyles, primitive cultures, old faces, and odd, unconventional
professions," Smithers wrote of his life's work. "Before my camera
I wanted huts, vendors, natural majesties, clothing, tools, children,
old people, the ways of the border."
Smithers' subjects included pioneers of aviation, the U.S. cavalry,
bandits, Pancho Villa, Texas Rangers, miners and people involved in
all manners of daily living in a rough but majestic land. Art critics
and scholars have criticized Smithers' work for its lack of clarity
and technical ability but, as one discerning critic noted, Smithers'
intention was to always preserve a story rather than create one.
Because he also needed to make a living, Smithers eventually settled
and, for 25 years, produced Photo Color Lampshades for a public that
didn't cease clamoring for the shades until long after Smithers had
stopped making them. He sold the shop when he was in his 60s, and
happened to meet Kenneth B. Ragsdale, a graduate student at the University
of Texas who recognized in Smithers' collection a treasure trove of
borderlands history, available nowhere else.
UT purchased his entire collection for $20,000 in 1967. Smithers used
the money to buy a new camera and tide him over while he wrote about
his photography and a unique life spent in unique pursuits in a unique
in his book, "Big Bend: Land of the Unexpected," recognized the technical
flaws that historians complained about in some of Smithers' work,
but he reckoned that critics sometimes missed what Smithers was all
about. A Smithers image of a poor child with a pet goat wasn't a social
protest, but a picture of childhood innocence.
photographers saw abject poverty and hopelessness, Smithers saw
cleanliness and order," Ragsdale wrote, concluding that, in a final
assessment of Smithers' work, "one salient fact must not be overlooked:
his work stands alone as a visual and verbal document of the southwest
borderlands. There is nothing else like it."
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
June 4, 2016 column
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