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Saturday, 22 December 2012


Studio Cowboys

 “Get off your horse and drink your milk.”
Attributed, incorrectly, to John Wayne

Here’s some statistics to get your head around. The number of cowboys, which is to say men that worked with cattle, who were black has been estimated to be around 50%. Since no one in the 1870s kept data the actual figure is unknown but we know it was high. In Arizona Territory many more are reckoned to have been Mexicans and Native Americans. It suggests that if you drove cattle to Abilene in the 1870s and you were a white man whose first language was English, you were somewhat unusual. It tells you something else; it must have been a rotten job wages wise; how many ranch owners were that enlightened that they’d pay a recently freed slave or an Apache the same rate as a white man? We haven’t even considered what it was like to ride tall in the saddle for eight or more hours a day. People who have had to do that will tell you it makes such everyday activities as sitting in a chair painful. Reading between the lines, it becomes apparent that cowboy wasn’t a long term career choice. Assuming that you weren’t thrown from a horse, suffered heat stroke, snow blindness, TB, snakebite, fever, typhoid, syphilis or smallpox, you’d want to get out of the business by your mid twenties. After that you either had no choice, were pushing your luck or you were a sucker for punishment. So how did what’s beginning to sound like the worst job a man could ask for become so mythologized? How is it that barely had the sun set on the range so to speak than men were lining up at photographers’ studios to look the part of a ruthlessly exploited, prematurely aged and poorly educated labourer?

There are cabinet cards and tintypes of office workers dressed as cowboys but the fashion seems to have really taken off at the turn of the century, when the real photo postcard first appeared. That coincided with the publication in 1902 of Owen Whistler’s The Virginian, which cultural historians mark as the birth of the cowboy legend in literature.  1903 marked the release of Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was the first western movie but more properly the first serious dramatic film made in America. This was also the era of Theodore Roosevelt, the closest to a real cowboy America ever had as president and a man who believed New York’s flaccid inhabitants could learn a few things from the cowboy’s simple, direct philosophy. His favourite artist was Frederic Remington, who we’ll get to later. America stood at the cusp of world power and it needed foundation myths. Forget Columbus, the Pilgrim Fathers and Valley Forge. America was born in the Wild West, and there were still a lot of people around who had lived through it. 

One thing to bear in mind: in the real Wild West a man either wore chaps or he carried a six gun; he didn’t do both. Only cowboys – men who worked with cattle – wore chaps, to protect them from the thorns as they rose through the brush, and while a rifle had its uses if you wanted to guard the herd from coyotes or wolves, strapping on a revolver was pointless and only added to the health risks in an already hazardous job. For sure there were times during the Montana sheep and cattle wars when cowboys could expect a bit of violence on the range but mostly it was kept to the towns, where they turned up, crawled out of the mess of rags they’d been wearing for the last few weeks and went off to a bar for a few drinks, and maybe a fight. The fact that guns might be drawn and someone carted off to Boot Hill didn’t mean he was in his sheepskin chaps at the time, though wearing a set into a bar in Tombstone or Abilene would have helped get him there. 

Reading about the legendary outlaws one soon notices a few patterns. Some, like Jesse James and Clay Allison, were veterans of the Civil War and if it’s too late to find out for sure it is still worth wondering how many emerged from that conflict so psychologically damaged that perpetuating the violence made sense. Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Longley were sociopaths who needed no justification for killing a man other than they didn’t mind doing it. A few – and I don’t know why this should be surprising – started their gun-fighting careers as lawmen, which didn’t mean they were on the side of good, merely paid by it. A glance at Wyatt Earp’s life story is enough to know he was familiar with the concept of moral ambiguity long before it became a literary term.

Speaking of Earp, the people in these photographs might not have been aware of how much they owed to the man. He was still alive when most of these were taken and was earning a living as a consultant to Hollywood. The producers wanted the truth but they weren’t too fussed by facts and here was a man who could tell them exactly what it was like to stride down the sun baked main street of Tombstone, fingers just above the Colt poking out of his holster, ready to draw against one of the toughest gunslingers west of the Pecos. Best of all, no one was alive anymore to contradict him. His only rival for Hollywood’s attention was Emmett Dalton, on the straight after years in jail, and he wasn’t about to cast aspersions on Earp’s grasp of the truth when a little fabrication made them both look good. The Wild West that Hollywood concocted in the 1910s and ‘20s came pretty much straight out of Earp and Dalton’s mouths, or imaginations. 

It seems there were a considerable number of shootouts at high noon, enough to give them a legitimate place in the folklore, but what we know about most of them is that they were spontaneous and often ended in a no contest on account of both players missing with their shots. Famed gunfighter Doc Holliday once drew on a man in a saloon and shot a bystander in the toe. Not only did the bystander risk lead poisoning from the bullet, there was a strong chance he’d die on the operating table when the bullet was removed. Holliday of course could not in all fairness notch that kill on his gun though he probably did.

Another myth of the Wild West was the crack shot, the man who could shoot from the hip and plug his opponent straight through the heart. Gun experts agree that for that to happen the gunslingers had to be about four feet apart or lucky. In the 1890s one circus sharpshooter explained how he got so accurate shooting a playing card that had been flicked in the air. Beforehand he would remove the lead bullet and fill the casing with buckshot then replace the bullet with a papier maché substitute. When he drew and fired the papier maché exploded into dust but one of the pieces of buckshot was sure to hit the card. The hard part was spinning the revolver and putting it back in the holster in one smooth move. 

The sad reality of the Wild West was that you were more likely to die at a dentist’s hands than a gunslinger’s. And if you survived the dentist’s chair there was a strong chance you’d emerge on to the street with the beginnings of a pernicious drug habit. Again, the figures are a little vague but it seems a high number of cowpokes were addicted to morphine, invariably as a result of visiting a dentist, though if they broke a wrist falling from a horse and needed some quick attention that could do it too. It doesn’t seem right, does it; stepping into a Tucson saloon and realizing the unfriendly silence is because everyone’s too doped up to do much else besides stare into their whisky glass. 

Another man the people in these photos owe something to is Frederic Remington. It’s common for art critics and historians to brush him off but if you’ve ever felt the lure of the West it is impossible to hate him. Give him his due. He heroized the cowboy – he was probably responsible for the notion that the Colt revolver was part of the cowpoke’s stock-in-trade - but in fairness the figures in his paintings are rarely the loud, swaggering John Wayne types. They look more like the men here, out of place and sorts. Remington was New York born and bred and only went west during the dying days of the frontier. Suffice to say he never saw a Pony Express rider in action and the closest he got to trouble with Indians was when he turned up to Wounded Knee a few days after US soldiers had massacred 150 men, women and children, most of them unarmed. He nevertheless believed that old story about the ethos of individuality, self reliance and fundamental justice, what we’d call true grit, being the source of America’s greatness and the answer to its problems. Give the West the boy and it would give you back the man. He was deluded of course. By the time he died in 1909 America’s success was much more dependent upon the millions of office workers who kept the government’s wheels turning, the kind of men who escaped the tedium by pretending for a few minutes they were cowboys.

America didn’t own copyright on the cowboy. Studios, often found at fairgrounds and carnivals, that offered the Wild West experience sprang up all over the world and it would be remiss here not to mention Karl May, the German author who recreated the image of the cowboy for millions of Europeans. Einstein and Hitler claimed him as their favourite author when they were boys. Though he died a century ago, Wild West re-enactments based on the Karl May vision have been hugely popular in Germany since the 1950s. In Eastern Germany during the Cold War they took on a particular slant. If the cowboy represented American capitalism, it was logical, and permissible, to sympathize with the Indian. Thousands of East Germans spent their wages on outfits and their weekends dressed as Tonto. The irony was lost on everyone. This postcard was taken in Turkey. You can see a few details are amiss, the hat for example is wrong, but the checked shirt and vest are close enough.  You don’t need to know much about America to know what a cowboy is. With his holster strapped over his chaps he is the epitome of the rugged individual, the man who stands tall, in or out of the saddle, the embodiment of freedom. When the Village People wee deciding on their costumes, you can bet which was the first they thought of.


Saturday, 8 December 2012


Real photo postcards from Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota
"Leave me alone and let me go to hell by my own route."
Calamity Jane, 1903

In America a village of 200 people can be called a city and a dirt track a highway. For years Pikes Peak Highway was just that, a stretch of gravel winding to the summit, 4300 metres above sea level. Like a lot of US highways in the first part of last century it was a privately built toll road. Why mining magnate Spencer Penrose thought in 1915 that Pikes Peak needed a highway to the top is unclear. Weather conditions could close it down for a lot of the year and when you got to the end there wasn’t much else to do except turn back and go down again. Maybe that was why he set up the Race to the Clouds the next year. It became one of the premier vehicle endurance races in the country and a testing ground for automobile companies. Bottomless Pit is near the top, just after the Devil’s Playground and before Bighorn Sheep Pullout.

The photographers who specialized in real photo views were tougher and more ruthless than we give them credit for. They marked out their territories, bought concessions and didn’t appreciate intruders. Harold Sanborn’s turf was Colorado and parts of Wyoming and Montana, hence with one exception, every postcard from these states that we’ll see came from his company. In 1995 Colorado businessman Derick Wangaard bought the Sanborn Postcard publishing Co and discovered some 40 000 of Harold Sanborn’s negatives and his journals wherein he had annotated every photo he had taken. Wangaard offered the archive to the Colorado Historical Society, which agreed it had extraordinary value but doubted they could raise the $500 000 he was asking. We’re not sure what happened after that. The usual story is that the archive gets broken up and scattered about then a few years later someone in the government realizes they lost an invaluable record of the state’s history.

A camera and a car were useful but what every itinerant photographer needed was the willingness to travel. That might sound banal but in the 1930s and 40s it meant putting up with car breakdowns, awful weather and hours of solitude behind the wheel. Often as not the photographer knew exactly what he was after and the best time to get it but there were times he chanced across a scene. This postcard was mailed in 1949 from Oakland California to Hingham in Massachusetts by ‘Meg’. She had just driven across the country and somewhere in Wyoming, probably Fort Bridger, she saw this in a rack and it reminded her of the miles of open road she had just experienced.

When the Lincoln highway system was proposed in the 1900s the planners were possessed with the notion that the route needed to be scenic. A straight route might be cheaper  but if it missed a scenic wonder the added expense in rerouting was of little concern. What was the point of driving across America if you missed all it had to offer? To cross Wyoming without passing by Tollgate Rock was like visiting Paris and skipping the Louvre. In the 1970s and 80s a new breed of planner came along. Cut costs and forget what the world looked like outside the windscreen, they said. Since government had handed responsibility to private corporations it could hardly complain.

Another view of Tollgate Rock, this one not by Harold Sanborn. Notice the highway and the speck of a car between the Rock and the cliff face in the foreground. It would have been easy to photograph Tollgate Rock from both vantage points and not include the road but this was an era of massive engineering projects and Detroit was building cars for the world. Scenic views we as much about America’s power as they were about its timeless landscape.

By 1925 the first age of the Wild West was dead and buried but the second was just climbing into the saddle. An industry built on cowboy nostalgia was hitting its strides and ranchers in Wyoming realized there was good money to be made if they diversified from sheep and cattle into tourism. For a weekend guests at dude ranches could don Stetsons, strap a lasso to their saddle and ride out along a mountain trail. At night they sat around campfires singing Big Rock Candy Mountain and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and maybe listened to a grizzled old timer talk of Sitting Bull. Sounds unmissable, but it wasn’t. The ranches were so popular that there was soon a demand for a place of worship the guests could head to on a Sunday and so the Chapel of the Transfiguration was built. It was constructed in the Western Craftsman style, which was as authentic as a Boston accountant in woollen chaps, but never mind. It fitted with the setting. Anything else would have been either ugly or absurd.

Since we were speaking of engineering marvels and scenic wonders, a detour to the Spiral Highway in Idaho is essential. Built in 1917 to connect Lewiston with Moscow, the problem to contend with was the 2000 foot incline out of Lewiston and though it could have been solved by avoiding the hills altogether, why pass up a challenge like that? The Spiral Highway wasn’t quite a folly - the point to so many curves was to slow traffic down to a manageable 30 mph – but try to imagine the detail involved in the surveying and engineering. It did inspire at least one song; Hot Rod Lincoln by Charlie Ryan, a 1955 answer song to Hot Rod Race. The basic premise was that Californian hot rodders were all talk until they’d taken on the Spiral Highway.

Gardiner, Montana, population about 850 and entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which officially begins once you have passed through the Roosevelt Arch to the left of the photo. Sanborn took this photo in the 1940s and though the neon signage has gone, the cars have long since turned to rust and we can assume the dog passed away some time back, most of what you see still survives. But for how long? Some scientists claim the next time the subterranean volcano bubbling away under Yellowstone blows its stack it will wipe out Montana, Colorado and most of Nevada. Since the last eruption was 640 000 years ago, another is due, maybe tomorrow.

Assuming Yellowstone’s volcano doesn’t blow its stack, by the time you read this, the Two Medicine River Bridge in Montana will have been dismantled anyway, its structural flaws making restoration a waste of time and money. It was only built in 1940 so arguments about its heritage value are a little thin and the plans for the replacement suggest that won’t completely ruin the view. Two Medicine River has its place in American history as the only site where the Lewis and Clark expedition had a violent conflict with Native Americans. Guess who started it. Lewis, the one with the flaky sounding first name, told a group of Piegan people he intended to sell guns to the Shoshone, their long time enemies. (Arms trade was already big business in America; the Piegan controlled the region’s gun market so Lewis was effectively threatening to break their monopoly.) Two casualties, both Piegan, and another omen of what was to come.

Into South Dakota, and if the number of postcards floating about the internet is any indication the Badlands were the most photographed area in the USA between 1930 and 1960. Why that should be is only speculation though geographically they were the entrance to the West for the north-eastern cities and a relatively short drive from Chicago and Minneapolis. Rise Studio was run by optometrist Carl H. Rise until his death in 1939 though it remained in operation until ‘fairly recently’, whenever that may mean. 

On some of Rise’s postcards this stretch is labelled ‘Satan’s Speedway’, which is much better than ‘road scene’. Once again we have a magnificent landscape serving as a mere backdrop to a photo of a highway, but who is to complain? Remove the road and you would think something was missing from this image. Rise was born in South Dakota in 1887, ten years after the Battle of Little Bighorn and the death of Crazy Horse. Deadwood’s heyday had passed but Calamity Jane was very much alive. It’s unlikely anyone thought they had lived through an era that would become mythical. They probably welcomed progress, whether that was a railway, running water or a dirt road. The point is, when he took his photos, Rise could remember a time when cars let alone highways were unimaginable in the back parts of Dakota. 

In 1937 21 year old amateur herpetologist Earl Brockelsby figured he could make money from his hobby by opening a roadside attraction. Back then, not long before this photo was taken, the idea was that travellers would pull in off the highway, buy a soda and look at the rattlers slithering about in their cages, which was more fun than finding one in your sleeping bag. These days the Black Hills Reptile Garden claims to have the largest collection of venomous reptile species of any zoo in the world and to be internationally recognized for its work in protecting species. 

 Which is the better prospect for getting you to pull off the road, a hissing snake showing off its fangs or a fake tree? Another of Brocklesby’s ventures was the nearby Skyline Petrified Forest, which didn’t have quite the same success as the Reptile Garden. This giant log, which stood at the entrance to the park, was basically a timber frame with a concrete and wire façade. It burned down in 1965 and wasn’t replaced. Had it survived, doubtlessly it would now be venerated along with the concrete dinosaurs, cowboy towns and giant portraits of four presidents and one Lakota warrior that, depending on your point of view, enhance or disfigure South Dakota’s landscape. It is time to leave the American West, to head south to the flyover states.