Andrew Alexander Forbes, photographer, was born in Ottawa Township, Waukesha County, Wisconsin, on April 18, 1862, the fifth child of James McLaren and Lucinda P. (Sanders) Forbes. Although little is known about him, his photographs are important historical documents that present the often tedious reality of life on the range. In the late 1880s Forbes began traveling on seasonal circuits through Texas and Oklahoma, visiting isolated spreads to photograph cowboys. He used glass plates, probably commercially prepared, to take his pictures. Ranchhands would pay fifty cents to a dollar for his photographs, and they gave him free bed and board. In addition to the expected shots of cowboys roping, branding, and dipping cattle, Forbes photographed cowhands engaged in more prosaic activities such as cooking, eating, smoking, and packing their gear.
Guns, chaps, boots, and other accoutrements of Hollywood legend are relatively scarce in Forbes's photographs, although most of the cowpunchers wear broad-brimmed hats and are shown close to their horses. In some of Forbes's photographs the cowhands were obviously posing for the "folks back home," as in a roping scene labeled Branding, in which no fire or irons are visible. Forbes's inclusion of rocky outcrops, mesas, vast expanses of space, and other landscape details provide a more romantic air in some of his shots; however, a photograph of cowboys in long coats, braced against a bitterly cold, dreary day, is more characteristic of his unvarnished approach to his subject matter. Forbes also photographed other aspects of western settlement, such as the April 1889 land rush in Oklahoma's unassigned lands, pioneers posed by their sod homes, Sac and Fox Indian children and teachers at a mission school in Indian Territory, and buffalo and other animals on the ranch of Charles Goodnight.
In 1909 Forbes moved to Bishop, California, where he married Mary R. Prutsman on June 30, 1909; they had one child. As a pioneer photographer in that area, Forbes specialized in mining and commercial work. He died in Lompoc, California, on March 21, 1921. His photographs are included in the collections of the Seaver Center for Western History Research in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; the University of Oklahoma Library in Norman, Oklahoma; the Library of Congress; and the Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives, Washington, D.C.