The American cowboy may have been portrayed most fancifully by the cameramen of Hollywood, but his image has been captured most realistically by the camera of Erwin E. Smith. A native of Bonham, Texas, the photographer grew up during the peak years of the “Wild West,” and as an adult, devoted himself to preserving on film what was, by the early 1900s, a dying way of life—dying, but not yet dead, as the raw beauty of Smith’s photographs can attest. He idolized the cowboys with whom he lived and worked, but he did not romanticize them. His images are honest portraits of hard-working men who earned their living doing manual labor in a rugged land.

The work of Erwin E. Smith has ample artistic merit, but its value is also profoundly historical. In a time and place when mobile cameras were hard to come by, he helped chronicle with an anthropologist’s precision the culture and lifestyle of American cattlemen. From trail bosses to bronco busters, he laid out for posterity a compendium of stirring yet edifying images that showed these men with a familiarity and sensitivity many other Western photographers lacked. He was never looking to sell a movie or canonize a hero, but rather transmit the inherent and imperfect beauty of a way of life that was fading right before his eyes. And lucky for us a century later, Erwin E. Smith succeeded admirably.

To see more of Erwin E. Smith’s cowboy photography, click here.