W. D. Smithers, a photographer and writer, the thirteenth of fourteen children of Frederick William and Mary Isabel (Copland) Smithers, was born on August 31, 1895, in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where his father was bookkeeper for the American Mining and Smelting Company. For three years he attended school in San Luis, where he developed fluency in Spanish and an interest in Mexican culture that shaped his later career as a photographic historian. In 1905 his family moved to San Antonio, where he attended several grade schools but did not complete high school. Instead, Smithers worked at a series of odd jobs and learned to take and develop photographs through a volunteer apprenticeship in the studio of Charles W. Archer. By 1912 he owned his own camera, a 120 folding Eastman model. The following year he constructed a camera, the first of several that he designed to enhance the camera's durability and portability. From 1915 to 1917 Smithers worked as a teamster for an army mule train. He traveled throughout the Big Bend area recording movements of the cavalry, the early use of planes by United States armed forces, and various efforts to suppress border unrest. He enlisted in the United States Cavalry in 1917 and shortly thereafter was stationed in Otay Mesa on the California-Mexico border, where he transferred to the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps. While he was stationed at Rockwell Field in San Diego, California, he taught military pilots aerial gunnery using the recently developed camera gun. He transferred back to Texas before he was honorably discharged on April 7, 1919. He subsequently traveled in Mexico and resumed work on the pack train until he returned to San Antonio in 1920. Smithers operated a photographic studio in San Antonio until 1929. He worked as a news correspondent and photographic freelancer for the San Antonio Light and the San Antonio Express and later worked for Underwood and Underwood News Service. During this period Smithers pioneered a new facet of his profession, aerial photography. He made frequent trips to the Big Bend and Mexico, and much of his reporting documented early flights in the Southwest. His photographs were taken with the unofficial cooperation of the army air corps, from whose aircraft he took the pictures. His negatives were printed as "official" army air corps photographs. During this time Smithers designed a camera with a rigid bellows that was unaffected by the airplane's propeller blast. He also earned money by photographing circus acts, taking photographs of the Mount Rushmore project for sculptor John Gutzon Borglum, and acting as guide and photographer for several films shot in Texas.
In the early 1930s border unrest prompted Smithers to return to the Big Bend area. He spent several years living on Elmo and Ada Johnson's ranch and was instrumental in persuading the United States Army Air Corps to establish an airfield there. At the ranch he constructed a unique half dugout-adobe darkroom that employed sunlight as a light source for his enlarger. Army air corps photographic teams and National Guard reconnaissance units unofficially used the facility. In 1933–34 he recorded the construction of the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory at Mount Locke, near Fort Davis; he then moved to El Paso, where he produced and sold postcards and lantern slides. In 1935, at the behest of the United States Immigration Service and Border Patrol, Smithers spent three months photographing the United States-Mexico border from the mouth of the Rio Grande near Brownsville to San Ysidro, California, on the Pacific coast. In the same year Smithers traveled to Mexico, where he took 1,500 lantern slides of temples, shrines, churches, and missions for a German university professor. Upon completion of this trip he settled in Alpine and devoted most of his time to producing postcards, slides for use in colleges and universities, and hand-colored photographic lamp shades. He pursued these commercial enterprises successfully until the early 1960s, when he began writing about his experiences.
In the course of his career as a photographer Smithers took more than 9,000 photographs of a wide range of subjects, including the pioneering work of such aviators as Claire L. Chennault, Katherine Stinson, and Benjamin Foulois; border skirmishes between the United States cavalry and Mexican raiders; the Texas Ranger' attempts to control smuggling across the border; mining in Terlingua; and the wildlife and landscape of the Big Bend region. He took photographs of such notables as Francisco (Pancho) Villa, Henrietta C. King, Will Rogers, and Chico Cano. In his best work he documented the culture of Mexican Americans in the Big Bend region. Scholars have criticized the technical quality of his photographs, which frequently lack clarity and exhibit haphazard compositions. Smithers never viewed his camera as a creative tool, however, 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: "my photography should direct itself to historical and transient subjects—vanishing lifestyles, primitive cultures, old faces, and odd, unconventional professions. Before my camera I wanted huts, vendors, natural majesties, clothing, tools, children, old people, the ways of the border." Smithers succeeded in reaching his goal, particularly in his desire to record the lives of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. He documented the often grueling lives of Mexican traders, folk healers, goat herders, hay farmers, and other laborers, their families, and their homes with straightforward images that conveyed their dignity without condescension.
The historical value of Smithers's photographs was enhanced by the notes that he kept for each image. In the early 1960s he began expanding on his brief notes by writing manuscripts to accompany his photographs. He published essays on curanderos, circuit riders, early trail drives in the Big Bend, and border trading posts in the Sul Ross Quarterly, the Western Horseman, the Cattleman, and other serial publications. His other publications included "Nature's Pharmacy and the Curanderos" and "The Border Trading Posts" (West Texas Historical and Scientific Society Publication No. 18, 1961), Early Trail Drivers in the Big Bend (1979), and Circuit Riders of the Big Bend (1981). In 1966 Smithers met Kenneth Ragsdale, a researcher from the University of Texas in Austin, who arranged for him to sell his photographs, manuscripts, and equipment to the university library. Smithers used the proceeds to buy another camera and continue his life's work. He moved to El Paso in 1974 and published his autobiography two years later. He died in Albuquerque on June 24, 1981. Most of his original negatives and prints are in the Photography Collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. Manuscripts associated with the Smithers Archive are distributed between the collections of the HRHRC and the Barker Texas History Center. Examples of his work may also be found at Sul Ross University, Alpine; Big Bend National Park Visitor Center, Panther Junction; the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Fort Worth; the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, San Antonio; and the El Paso Public Library.