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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

W.D. Smithers and
the Ways of the Border

by Clay Coppedge
As 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 behind.

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 in Alpine 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 land.

Ragsdale, 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.

"Where other 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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