Charles M. Russell: Photographing the Legend, by Larry Len Peterson, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2014, $60
Charles Marion Russell (1864–1926) was born into privilege in bustling St. Louis, Mo., though from an early age he wished instead he’d grown up on the back of a cow pony in the frontier West. So it was in 1880 the 16-year-old boarded a train bound for Helena, Mont., and spent a summer as a hand on various ranches. The next year he bought his first horse—a pinto he named Monte—and in 1882 he returned to Montana for keeps. While pursuing work as a cowhand, Russell also honed his natural artistic ability by capturing the vanishing cowboy life in romantic illustrations and in wax, clay and, later, bronze sculptures. He got commissions from local merchants and ranch owners, and in 1893 he retired from cowboying to pursue art full time. But it wasn’t until after his marriage to Nancy Cooper in 1896 that he became the internationally known cowboy artist Charlie Russell. She was his business manager and relentlessly marketed both Charlie’s work and the artist himself through the burgeoning medium of photography.
What better medium to relate a life lived in pictures than a biography filled with pictures? Montana- based author and art collector Larry Len Peterson, a recipient of two Western Heritage Awards for prior art books, follows Russell from childhood to death—and beyond into posthumous legend—with photographs from every stage of his life. Peterson recognizes Nancy’s influence, and his book is thus a dual biography of sorts. Peterson dedicates the book to Russell biographer Brian Dippie, who penned the brief but insightful foreword. “Russell was good copy,” Dippie notes, “and Nancy was not wrong in putting his face on his art. After all, his appearance mirrored his perspective. He posed, but he was no poseur.” Thus the cowboy artist became inseparable from his art—indeed, a part of its appeal and a factor in its value. (His works now fetch in the millions of dollars at auction.) As Charlie gained fame, Nancy bent ears and pulled strings to have him photographed in company with other contemporary celebrities, including William S. Hart, John Ford, Harry Carey Sr., Douglas Fairbanks, Will Rogers and Jack Dempsey. While many of those photos were snapshots, Nancy also arranged posing sessions for Charlie with renowned portrait photographers of the era, including Edward S. Curtis, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Roland Reed and Dorothea Lange.
Peterson sheepishly admits his own infatuation with Russell’s image. “It is a bad business to fall in love with dead people, yet biographers often do that. Many of us have fallen for the cowboy artist.” Here he presents 344 images from Russell’s life and time, tracing Charlie’s career and path to celebrity in words, while transporting us to specific moments in pictures. “Charlie and Nancy understood that photography had the uncanny ability to jar the memory and bring places and people back to life—just what Charlie achieved in his art,” Peterson explains. “What has been caught on film is captured forever. Photographs remember little things about Charlie’s life long after they have been snapped, his life has passed, and copious words have been written.”
Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Wild West.