Smith, Frances Sutah [Polly] (1908–1980)

By: Evelyn Barker and Gaylon Polatti

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1995

Frances Sutah (Polly) Smith, photographer, was born on December 29, 1908, to Roy and Marion "Minnie" (Burck) Smith in Ruston, Louisiana. Roy worked for various newspapers and moved his family around repeatedly. After Polly's birth, the Smiths moved to Blum, Texas, then to Amarillo. At their next home in Whitney, Roy abandoned the family. Led by Minnie, Polly and her six brothers and sisters worked to support themselves and complete their education. Each child attended school on a part-time basis and contributed earnings for the care and schooling of the younger children. The Smith family cooperative, as its members later called it, put each child through college. Always interested in art, Polly had a talent for photography and studied in New York with Edward Steichen. In the summer of 1935 the Texas Centennial Central Exposition hired her as a freelance photographer. The exposition boasted two publicity offices-in Dallas and New York City-from which it sent out hundreds of announcements and articles about the centennial. Articles describing the exposition or its specific attractions were written for publications as diverse as Vogue and Angora Goat Raiser, and with every article went photographs. Armed with a letter of introduction and her camera equipment, Smith set out to capture Texas on film. Her work was not easy. Initially, she stayed in hotels along her route, accumulating negatives and periodically stopping to develop them. Later, a friend built a dark room for her on the back of a truck. This allowed her to drive around the state at will, developing her work under a shady tree along the road. Her photographs appeared with articles in magazines like House Beautiful, Pictorial Review, Furniture Age, Architectural Forum, and many others. Texas Parade called Polly "one of Texas' finest artists with the camera," and stated that any illustrated book on Texas was likely to contain one or more of her "unusual" shots. After her work for the exposition, she contracted with several large companies to shoot a series of pictures on specific subjects, including cotton, cowboys, and oil. Her brother Cyrus Rowlett Smith, who ran what was then American Airways, commissioned her to do a series on airplanes. By 1940 she had joined her sister Floris (Flo) to work on publicity for the Dallas Aviation School. Polly took photographs and handled layout while Flo wrote copy. They continued this partnership during World War II by working in Hollywood for columnist Louella Parsons. Flo eventually married, and Polly returned to Austin where she began to study art at the University of Texas in 1944. Impressionistic painting and sculpture soon replaced photography as her primary interest; however, health concerns forced her to abandon her studies within the year. Though she continued to paint and sculpt, Smith fought cancer and debilitating illness for the rest of her life. She died in Auburn, California, on June 18, 1980.

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Centennial Collection (A38.3), Papers, Dallas Historical Society. Centennial Collection (A38.3), Photographs, Polly Smith, Dallas Historical Society. Gaylon Polatti and Evelyn Barker, "Texas through the Lens: Polly Smith and the Texas Centennial," Legacies 6 (Fall 1994).
  • Visual Arts
  • Photography
  • Women

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

Evelyn Barker and Gaylon Polatti, “Smith, Frances Sutah [Polly],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 12, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995

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