Luckily for us, some of America's great photographers were lured by the gritty majesty of the American West and recorded it with cinematic admiration. Photographs Do Not Bend, the always-refreshing gallery responsible for bringing this city some of its most challenging shows of contemporary photography, has put together an exhibit of very cool cowboy photography of the past century. I Wanna Be a Cowboy, which opens Friday, not only spans the years, it also covers various interpretations of the genre, from L.A. Huffman's late-19th-century landscapes to the recent high-art nod by New York darling David Levinthal, with his Stetsoned G.I. Joe dolls kicking up dust in giant shiny photos of questionable focus and even more questionable reverence for cowboy machismo.
Some of the photos are so perfect, they're obviously "cheated," insofar as formally educated Erwin Smith gave his cowboy subjects some loose direction before snapping a photo of them riding off into a sunset (circa 1905-1910). Sure, they're still real cowboys, and those are their actual horses and steers (and early Hollywood took much of its Western-obsessed aesthetic from Smith's cue), but one can only smile warily at the work of present-day film producer Bill Wittliff. Wittliff's "cowboys" are none other than Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, captured by Wittliff's keen eye for nostalgia on the set of his Lonesome Dove. Scary thing is, you can't tell Smith's and Wittliff's photos apart, so honed is the TV-land mimicry. If anything, it's best to read Wittliff's work as an astute homage to the old masters using the only kind of cowboys readily available today: Tinseltown ones.
Which makes the works of Bank Langmore and Chris Regas all the more fascinating. These two contemporary Texas photographers scouted for the dying cowboy way of life and found it on remote Texas ranches through the '70s and '80s. Their photos evoke the glory-soaked angles of Smith and Langmore while injecting a new, more cynical edge. These vaqueros' faces look less haggard and weather-beaten and resigned than their predecessors, and more determined, as if they sense they could be the last cowboys ever to grace these parts.
But it's the handful of historic works by unknown photographers that epitomize the grace and poignancy of I Wanna Be a Cowboy's tone. While it's possible a few of the unaccredited photos were snapped by the great Cyclops of the time, more likely these faded pictures of rangy, clear-eyed men and their horses were taken by wives and sisters, local portrait-makers, and fellow ranch hands. The anonymity of the people and settings, the questions they evoke in the viewer--Who are these guys, and what happened to them?--drive the point home: This stuff was real.
I Wanna Be a Cowboy, at Photographs Do Not Bend, 3115 Routh St., Dallas. Opens Friday, March 20 (opening 6-8 p.m.) and runs through April 25. For info, call (214) 969-1852.