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Pioneer Big Bend photographer dies

June
24
1981

On this day in 1981, photographer W. D. Smithers died in Albuquerque at the age of eighty-five. Smithers was born in Mexico, where his father was the bookkeeper for an American mining company. The family moved to San Antonio in 1905. Smithers dropped out of high school and learned photography through a volunteer apprenticeship at a local studio. In the course of his career, most of which he spent in West Texas, Smithers took more than 9,000 photographs of a wide range of subjects, including such notables as Katherine Stinson, Pancho Villa, and Will Rogers; mining in Terlingua; border skirmishes between the United States cavalry and Mexican raiders; the attempts of the Texas Rangers to control smuggling; and the wildlife and landscape of the Big Bend. His best work documents Mexican-American culture in the Big Bend region. Smithers viewed his camera not as a creative tool, but as an instrument to document the events he witnessed and the people he met. He summarized his goals as a photographer in his 1976 autobiography, Chronicles of the Big Bend: A Photographic Memoir of Life on the Border. Most of his original negatives and prints are in the Photography Collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

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