Photojournalist Frank Reeves set out simply to document the life of the working cowboy—but by the end of a fifty-year career, his unsentimental images had developed into art.
IN THE FIELD OF COW-BOY PHOTOGRAPHY, Frank Reeves was a top hand. His pictures are as vast and as sprawling as the ranches they depict, including fabled spreads like the Spur, the Matador, and the 6666. For fifty years, starting in 1914, Reeves logged thousands of miles—often with his wife, Nora—crisscrossing Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico in a lifelong mission to chronicle the life of the cowboy, from rounding up cattle on the ranch to bedding down for the night on the plains. By the time he retired in 1964, he had amassed 60,000 images—some stunning, many nostalgic, all priceless for their historical accuracy.
Reeves’s work is a cornerstone of the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, an ever-expanding archive housed in a handsome new 78,000-square-foot building that will officially open to the public this month. As its name suggests, the collection—which includes 6,000 oral history tapes, 200,000 feet of film, 50,000 books on the West, and 200 original pastels by West Texas landscape artist Frank Reaugh—emphasizes regional history from water woes and oil booms to (most especially) ranch lore.
Born in Kentucky in 1884, Reeves moved to Texas with his family when he was an infant. He grew up in tiny Miller Bend in Young County, where his parents worked a small farm. By age sixteen he was already interested in photography, then an inexact art of awkward glass plates and stiffly posed subjects, and had set up a small darkroom in his bedroom. After attending Grayson College in Denison, he dabbled in farming, law studies, and carpentry before landing a job in 1912 as a stenographer for the immense SMS Ranch, headquartered in Stamford. Significantly, the ranch had at one time hired another vaunted cowboy photographer, Erwin Smith, to take pictures for its annual sales catalog. Within two years Reeves had added to his clerical duties not only the catalog shots but also the photographic documentation of cowboys. He often accompanied trainloads of SMS cattle when they were shipped north, recording the journey on film. Stately and portraitlike, his early pictures are remarkable, given the limitations of the old-fashioned, slow box cameras.
As improvements in photography steadily developed, flashbulbs and faster film lent Reeves’s work a livelier, more documentary feel. “I’ve always tried to make my pictures authentic instead of spectacular,” he told an interviewer in 1969. “I wanted [my subjects] working, not standing around and looking at the camera. A lot of times I’d make the pictures and say, ‘Thank ya,’ then they’d get busy and I’d get busy shooting pictures.” His genial, low-key personality helped him win over reluctant subjects (though he always insisted on wearing a suit and tie among the dusty, jeans-clad men and women he sought to photograph). Reeves never viewed his work as art, often scribbling descriptive information directly onto his plates, storing years’ worth of proof sheets in a barrel in his garage, and allowing negatives to spill over onto the floor. Sometimes, cleaning his office by sweeping the desktop clutter into a wastebasket, he would destroy pictures by the dozen.
Reeves made his name professionally during his 35 years with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as a livestock reporter (a profession that subsequently attracted Elmer Kelton, Texas’ preeminent western writer). One of Reeves’s photographs accompanied his Chuck Wagon column, a folksy recounting of sales data and ranching statistics, which were taken as gospel by industry stalwarts like The American Hereford Journal and The Cattleman magazine. On visits to far-flung outposts, he lugged along a battered Underwood typewriter in addition to his cameras; after an auction, roundup, or hoedown, he would bang out a story, then wire it back to Fort Worth.
Reeves lived long enough to find himself acclaimed as a Western photojournalist. In 1953 Fort Worth’s famous Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show celebrated Frank Reeves Appreciation Day. In 1965 Cowtown’s Amon Carter Museum mounted an exhibition of his photographs titled “Texas Ranch Life: 1914–1965.” Frank Reeves died in 1975, a modest man whose work helped preserve the West of his day and conveyed its legendary color in evocative black and white.
Photo Images are not available online. A copy of the April 1997 edition of Texas Monthly can be ordered from the Back Issues web site.
A thirst for the west: a horse and rider pause at the Texas Cowboy Reunion in Stamford, 1959.
A cowboy experiences a close shave at the Waggoner ranches near Vernon.
The foreman of the 6666’S Triangle ranch in north Texas rides herd in the twenties.
Hands gather around the campfire.
Cowboys brand a heifer at Stamford’s SMS ranch in 1919.
“Cookie” mans the chuck wagon at Reynolds’ X ranch near Kent.