A Guide to the W. D. Smithers Collection, 1907-1930
Wilfred Dudley Smithers (1895-1981), photographer, writer, and photographic historian, was born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. He moved with his family to San Antonio in 1905. A high school dropout, Smithers volunteered as an apprentice to Charles W. Archer, where he learned to take and develop photographs. He built his first camera in 1913.
Smithers worked as a driver for an army mule train from 1915 to 1917 and served in the United States Cavalry from 1917 to 1919. Stationed in San Diego, Smithers used the newly invented camera gun to train military pilots in aerial combat. After his honorable discharge, Smithers worked in Mexico as a pack train driver and returned to San Antonio one year later, where he ran a photography studio until 1929. He worked as a correspondent and freelancer for the San Antonio Light, the San Antonio Express, and Underwood and Underwood news service. His aerial photographs from this time were used as official army air corps pictures, and he developed a camera that could function unaffected by the blast from airplane propellers. Additionally, Smithers earned a living by photographing Mount Rushmore for sculptor John Gutzon Borglum and working on Texas films.
Smithers spent the 1930s living in the Big Bend area of Texas, where he convinced the United States Army Air Corps to establish an airfield. He designed his own darkroom, which was often used by members of the Army and National Guard. He documented the construction of the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory from 1933 to 1934 and then moved to El Paso. The following year, Smithers worked taking pictures of the U.S.-Mexico border for the U.S. Immigration Service and Border Patrol. He traveled once again to Mexico on a project for a German university professor before he moved to Alpine, Texas, where he sold postcards, slides for academic use, and handmade photographic lamp shades. He became a writer, documenting his life and experiences, in the early 1960s, and published manuscripts to accompany his photos, essays, and other serial pieces. In 1966 he sold many of his photographs, manuscripts, and photographic equipment to the University of Texas and bought a new camera. Smithers moved to El Paso again in 1974 and two years later published his autobiography, Chronicles of the Big Bend: A Photographic Memoir of Life on the Border. His work can be found at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin as well as at Sul Ross University in Alpine; the Big Bend National Park Visitor Center; the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio; and the El Paso Public Library.
Source:Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "Smithers, Wilfred Dudley," http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/SS/fsm78.html (accessed August 3, 2010).
The W. D. Smithers Collection, 1907-1930, contains historical narratives and a checklist of photographic descriptions. The narratives concern the U.S. Army (1910-1930) and its activities along the Mexican border, with special emphasis on early military aviation in the Southwest. Additionally, the narratives pertain to medics, cooks, logistics, horse cavalry, and couriers in the army. Other narratives in the collection are concerned with the Pershing expedition of 1916, the National Guard and State Militia, customs officials, bandits, ranches, trading posts, treaties between the U.S. and Mexico, Mexican religious life, curanderos (folk healers), and avisadores. Furthermore, the collection contains a checklist, describing photographs associated with the narratives. The photographs can be found at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
The collection is open for research.
W. D. Smithers Collection, 1907-1930, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
This collection was processed by Robert W. Tissing, January 1972.
Basic processing and cataloging of this collection was supported with funds from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for the Briscoe Center’s "History Revealed: Bringing Collections to Light" project, 2009-2011.
Detailed Description of the Papers