Smith, Erwin Evans (1886–1947)

By: Eldon Stephen Branda

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: July 1, 1995

Erwin Evans Smith, photographer, son of Albert A. and Mary Alice (Erwin) Smith, was born on August 22, 1886, in Honey Grove, Texas. When he was seven he moved fifteen miles west to Bonham with his mother, who had remarried after his father's death. As a boy he visited with relatives near Quanah, and he was introduced to ranch life in Hardeman and Foard counties. The cattle range so appealed to him that he began making sketches of horses and Indians, and he obtained an inexpensive camera to record what he saw. He rode the range in Arizona and Mexico as a regular cowhand, but he always took his camera along so that he could record what he knew was fast disappearing from the American scene. He still wanted to be an artist, however, and in 1904, at the age of eighteen, he went to Chicago to study under Lorado Taft, one of the foremost American sculptors; his intention was to make bronze sculptures of the men and beasts of the cow country, using his photographs as guides to truthfulness in his work. After two years with Taft he returned to Texas, worked as a cowhand, and with great veracity photographed the working life of the cowboy. Constantly urging his fellow workers to go about their business as usual and working with painstaking exactness, Smith produced masterfully natural-looking pictures. By remaining truthful to the life he knew best, he was able to capture a real and exciting portrait of the rangeland. Smith used an Eastman screen-focus Kodak camera, Goerz lens, and volute shutter. In 1906 he took his photographs with him to Boston, where he studied under the eminent sculptor Bella Lyon Pratt. He won a prize at the Boston Art Institute for his bust of a Sioux Indian, and although he continued to be associated with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for the next three years, he hurried back to the rangeland as often as he could. In 1908 forty enlargements of his photographs of the West were stopping crowds in a downtown Boston exhibit, and two articles about him had appeared, both written by George Pattullo, Sunday editor of the Boston Herald. This success brought him to the attention of actors like Dustin Farnum and William S. Hart, who wanted advice on how to make their western characterizations more authentic. Pattullo became Smith's closest friend, and they traveled together in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, Smith producing photographs and Pattullo writing western stories that appeared in popular magazines. In 1914 Smith returned to Texas to begin ranching on his own, but by 1917 he was bankrupt. He never married. Once his range-riding days were over his artistic life faded, and he spent his remaining years at his place outside Bonham, where he died on September 4, 1947. He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Honey Grove. The last thirty years of his life seem to have been unproductive, but the early photographs remain a testimonial to his early artistic genius. Concerning his photographs, Harry Peyton Steger wrote in 1909 that "whether the man who took them succeeds as a painter and sculptor, he has already done a work of great importance." More than 10,000 photographs were in Smith's collection at the time of his death. In 1949 1,800 Smith plates and films were placed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and 100 of Erwin Smith's prints were on permanent display at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin. In 1991 the photos remained in the Texas Memorial Museum, and the Amon Carter Museum had copyright to and permanent loan of Smith's original negatives from the Library of Congress. Smith's half-sister, Mary Alice Pettis, established the Erwin Smith Foundation to provide scholarships for the study of photographic history. A 1990 reprint of C. L. Douglas's Cattle Kings of Texas contained many of Smith's photographs.

Eldon S. Branda, "Portrait of a Cowboy as a Young Artist," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 71 (July 1967). J. Evetts Haley, Life on the Texas Range (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1952). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Visual Arts
  • Photography
  • Sculpture

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Eldon Stephen Branda, “Smith, Erwin Evans,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995