W.D. Smithers, a tireless photojournalist and amateur anthropologist, documented life along the Rio Grande in Texas’ remote Big Bend country.
“Settlement came late to the Big Bend,” historian Kenneth Ragsdale once wrote about Texas’ relentlessly rugged southwest border country. “By the time the population had penetrated most other regions in the state, the area around Terlingua Creek was still an unknown, uninhabited wasteland.” Raiding Comanches and Apaches, to say nothing of the harsh desert landscape—mountains, mesas, buttes and sand-choked arroyos—kept out settlers during the early frontier era. The Texas & Pacific Railway finally pushed west of the Pecos River in the early 1880s, but for hundreds of square miles south of the tracks, all the way to the Rio Grande, the land remained sparsely populated and inhospitable. Horseless carriages (automobiles) were slow to round the Big Bend; into the 1930s horses, sure-footed burros, and mule-drawn stages and freight wagons remained the transport of choice.
Wilfred Dudley Smithers (1895–1981) was born to American parents working in the Mexican city of San Luis Potosí. In 1905 his family moved to San Antonio, where young W.D. soon apprenticed for a photographer. By 1913, tired of lugging around glass negatives and an 8-by-10-inch view camera, Smithers fashioned wooden apple crates into his own sturdy, lightweight camera—a design that proved capable of withstanding the trying conditions of the Big Bend.
A variety of jobs offered Smithers unique access to the border country and its people. From 1915 to 1917, during the U.S. Army’s border clash with Mexican bandit and revolutionary general Pancho Villa, he worked as a teamster on an Army mule train. He followed with stints in the Cavalry and Signal Corps, all the while keeping a photographic record. Returning to San Antonio in 1920, he opened a studio and traveled often to the Big Bend on photojournalism assignments for the San Antonio Light, San Antonio Express and the Underwood & Underwood news service. He also earned money photographing traveling circus acts and serving as a guide and photographer for films shot in Texas.
Smithers’ photographic collection, which he donated in the 1960s to the University of Texas at Austin [www.utexas.edu], centers on the hardworking Texans and Mexicans who called the Big Bend home. Mexican topics— folk culture, religion, medicine, trade and domestic life—comprise about half of the 9,000 photographs he took over seven decades of fieldwork. Smithers was especially interested in the curanderos (folk healers who roamed the desert for medicinal plants and often worked gratis) and avisadores (signal messengers that functioned as a rapid-response Mexican grapevine). He also trained his lens on Texas lawmen, bandits, smugglers, the last of the Big Bend cattlemen, and the soldiers, horsemen and airmen of the U.S. military.
Scholars have criticized Smithers’ artistic sensibilities— his images sometimes lack clarity and are haphazardly composed—but the photojournalist never viewed his camera as a creative tool. Instead he sought simply to depict daily human endeavors as they occurred before the great changes of the 20th century—barefoot boys collecting water from the Rio Grande, liquor smugglers balancing kegs across the backs of their overtaxed mules, cowboys riding hard at day’s end to catch up to the chuck wagon. As Smithers recalled in his 1976 autobiography, Chronicles of the Big Bend: A Photographic Memoir of Life on the Border, “I began to feel that my photography should direct itself to historical and transient subjects —vanishing lifestyles, primitive cultures, old faces and odd, unconventional professions.”
Virginia native Steve Mauro was associate editor of Wild West for five years before he went West as almost a young man in 2012 to further educate himself in the ways of the world. Suggested for further reading is W.D. Smithers’ Chronicles of the Big Bend, with a foreword by Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.