Along the Cowboy Trail: The American Cowboy in Photographs, Verse, and Lore, photography by Robert Dawson, text and editing by Tammy LeRoy, R D Publishing, Phoenix, Ariz., 2000, $29.95.
Is it possible to portray the life of a cowboy in a visual and lyrical manner without resorting to a movie screen? Photographer Robert Dawson and author/editor Tammy LeRoy have succeeded not only in doing that but also in exploring the attraction of the American West, and of cowboy life, in an unusually varied way. Dawson’s excellent photographs (presented in a wide, “landscape” format) combine with a brief descriptive and historical text by LeRoy, selected cowboy poems and a few quotes and song lyrics to bring together a dynamic and inviting view of that life.
A major part of the attraction is the West itself–the endless mountains, canyons, plains and skies of Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, California, Montana, Nevada and Idaho that form an expansive backdrop for most of the book’s photographs. Other pictures zoom in on details, from frozen tension (the act of restraining a rearing horse) to moments of repose (a shadow on a cabin wall, a rider pausing on a mountain). They also include close-ups of some of the well-worn, but still elegant, clothing and tools used by the cowboys. Leather chaps, suede or wool vests, bandannas, ten-gallon hats, lassos, finely tooled holsters and saddles, boots with elaborate spurs–all are pictured here, but this is no fashion catalog. For the most part we see wide landscapes combined with the motion of the trail. A herd of wild horses kicks up dust on a plain, or water while crossing a river. Lassos are suspended in air. Cactuses reach for the sky.
And then there is the text–brief, so we can get back to the pictures, but indispensable in the documentary unfolding here. After presenting a history and description of cowboy life in several pages of clear, readable prose, LeRoy embellishes it with quotes, including one from Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, one from Walter Prescott Webb, and a dozen or so others from less-well-known writers. Also sprinkled in are an assortment of poems and song lyrics by various writers, some recent but many from early in the 20th century. These may be an acquired taste, but never fear: They too are surrounded by Dawson’s vivid photographs. Toward the end of the book we find a useful “Cowboy Lexicon” and a salute to cowgirls (with a quote from Fanny Sperry Steele, World Champion Lady Bucking Horse Rider, 1912 and 1913).
If there is an overarching message here, it just may be found in the expanse and beauty of the land where cowboys have always worked. So long as that land remains unchanged (and the part of it pictured here certainly seems untouched), cowboy life offers a strong continuity, an escape from the constant changes of modern life. Despite the difficulties that, LeRoy assures us, fill their everyday lives, Dawson’s cowboys are surrounded and dwarfed by the beauty of nature, and that gives them a certain solitude and peace that contemporary readers may find irresistible.
Claudia Gary Annis