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The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 81, July 1977 - April, 1978

Book Reviews
Chronicles of the Big Bend: A Photographic Memoir of Life on the Border.
By W. D. Smithers. (Austin: Madrona Press, Inc. 1976. Pp. x+ 144-
Foreword, index. $11.95.)
In 1916 W. D. Smithers took a handmade camera with wooden bellows
to the Big Bend country of Texas and Mexico. His intent was to photo-
graph the "vanishing lifestyles, primitive cultures, old faces, and odd, un-
conventional professions" of the area. "Before my camera," he wrote, "I
wanted huts, vendors, natural majesties, clothing, tools, children, old people,
the ways of the border" (p. 9). Fifty years and several thousand negatives
and prints later, Smithers sold one of the finest regional photography col-
lections in the country to the University of Texas at Austin. Chronicles
contains over nine dozen of these photographs and provides an excellent
overview of Smithers's diverse subject matter.
The text accompanying the photographs is a series of entertaining
sketches of Smithers's recollections of his years in the Big Bend. Chapters
deal with the military (particularly the author's experiences as a teamster),
desperados and lay enforcement, curanderos (healers), rum runners, avisos
(the border "grapevine" comprised of messages flashed by mirrors), and
the changes the national park brought to the region. Smithers is at his best
describing the people and their day-to-day existence in the arid Big Bend
--the goat herder and his family, wandering traders, and the harvesting
of chino grass for cash to purchase luxuries such as Lobo Negro (Black
Wolf), a popular brand of cigarettes that came in a five-cent bag.
Chapter 9, El Fotdgrafo, contains the seeds for another Smithers book
that would add significantly to the history of photography. The primitive
conditions on the frontier coupled with the then crude technology of photo-
graphy forced him to innovate. For example, enlargements presented a
problem because there was no electricity for light, so Smithers cut sun vents
in the roof of his darkroom. It, incidentally, was excavated out of a gravel
pit, the only place which afforded the necessary darkness during the day.
For chemical trays, he lined wooden boxes with oil cloth and, when in
Mexico, used cazuelas (earthenware cooking pans) to hold his chemicals.
Chronicles suffers in places from too much detail and the book contains
weak transitional paragraphs and occasional unnecessary filler material.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 81, July 1977 - April, 1978. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. Accessed May 4, 2016.

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