Historic Photos of Heroes of the Old West, by Mike Cox, and Historic Photos of Outlaws of the Old West, by Larry Johnson, Turner Publishing, Nashville, Tenn., 2010, $39.95
If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then each photo-rich volume of Turner Publishing’s Historic Photos series is worth a cool quarter million. For several years now we’ve admired these large-format visual histories, deftly culled from the Library of Congress, the National Archives and regional collections and most often focused on the history of a specific place (Alaska to Albuquerque, Texas to Tucson). But these two entries really hit our Western sweet spot.
First, the Good: Heroes of the Old West, from the pioneering Lewis and Clark to the “myth purveying” Owen Wister. While some of those profiled are indisputably heroic (John Wesley Powell, Bill Tilghman, Theodore Roosevelt), and others at least legendary (George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody), Western aficionados may have problems calling Judge Roy Bean or Calamity Jane “heroes.” Perhaps a more accurate title would have been Icons of the Old West. Not that we’re complaining. The photos strike a balance between classic portraits and captured moments, each illumined by Mike Cox’s running text and captions.
Next up, the Bad: Outlaws of the Old West. This one might bear the subtitle The Quick and the Dead, for here are the living legends (Frank and Jesse James, Billy the Kid, the Dalton Gang, Black Jack Ketchum), as well as the badmen’s bodies (Jesse in his coffin, the Daltons laid out in Coffeyville, Black Jack on the gallows). Writer Larry Johnson relates their headline-grabbing exploits without perpetuating the Robin Hood myth. “Viewing these photographs allows us to look these fellows in the eye and assess their character,” he writes, “something we probably wouldn’t have been allowed to do in real life and live to tell about it.”
We’re not sure whom Turner will offer up as the Ugly, but the Kid sure wasn’t a looker—not that we’d have lived to tell him that mug to mug.