Shooting Cowboys: Photographing Cowboy Culture 1878-1965
by Brock Silversides, Fifth House Publishers, 1998
reviewed by Ken Tingley
In a way all Albertans are beneficiaries of the cowboy myth. When my father moved the family to Alberta from New Brunswick during the Golden Jubilee year of 1955, as an eight-year-old I was excited to be going to real "cowboy country." I wasn't disappointed when we arrived in Royalties, now only a name from history. My father taught me over the hill at Longview, where students rode to school on horseback, and a hitching rail graced the front of the school. I attended a one-room school with Joey Bews and his big brother Tommy, who was idolized by all the "little kids," and who would go on to become Best All Round Cowboy. On the rainy night we arrived at the teacherage, the muddy road was blocked for miles be a cattle drive. While we lived for a year across the lane from a sour gas well, in the middle of what was in the 1930s one of the foremost oil developments in the province, I never really felt that we lived in "Oil Country." That year I lived in "Cowboy Country." To many Canadians, all Alberta is still cowboy country.
Recently there has been another investigation into the power and persistence of the cowboy myth in Alberta. The Glenbow Museum and Archives kicked off the public debate with "The Canadian Cowboy: New Perspectives on Ranching History," held at the Glenbow during late September 1997. In conjunction with the conference, a major exhibition titled "The Canadian Cowboy" opened. Historians David Breen, University of British Columbia, Richard Slatta, University of North Carolina, Joy Oetelaar, University of Calgary, and others examined the cowboy in his many incarnations - historical, fictional and mythological.
Alberta writers have been exploring the cowboy theme lately as well. Brock Silversides, formerly the audio-Visual Archivist at the Provincial Archives of Alberta and now with the Saskatchewan Archives Board in Saskatoon, has previously published books on western Canada's mountains, native people, and grain elevators. When I asked him why he undertook Shooting Cowboys: Photographing Cowboy Culture 1878-1965,he replied that it was "the next obvious archetype in western Canadian photography."
As in his other books, Silversides has used the historical photograph as an entrée into the past. He began with the photos of George Anderton, the first resident photographer in the North West Territories, who worked around Fort Walsh from 1876 19 1879. The last images silversides examined were shot in the 1960s. Throughout, there was a distinct difference between documentation and romanticization. Stampede and rodeo photos shaped the romantic image, and guns were as common in Canadian shots as in their American counterparts. Production stills, such as those of Hoot Gibson at the Calgary Stampede, reinforced the trend.
The lasting photographic image remained that of the lone figure going against the conventions of society. The further image diverged from the reality, the more powerful they became.
While the romantic images were much the same for American and Canadian cowboys, the documentary images exhibited several differences. Wondering how close the Canadian cowboy come to the American type, Silversides discovered that the photographic record does not contain the glorification of violence in the Canadian examples. Canadians were not as flashy, didn't seem to have among them as many "characters." These differences were real, although subtle. This is another reason silversides wanted to do the book. "Anything I would have known about cowboys before coming to Alberta would have been about American cowboys."
As always, Silversides stresses the validity of trying to interpret Alberta history through its photography. He examines the cowboy mythology in four chapters covering the "real cowboy," the competitive cowboy, the cowboy entertainer, and aspects of cowboy culture which still flavour our lives such as western wear, dude ranches, and trail rides. Witness the annual Canadian Finals Rodeo in Edmonton and the Calgary Stampede.
The persistence of the Cowboy Myth is exemplified by other recent books as well. Any Russell's The Canadian Cowboy,which began the present publishing stampede in 1993, has just been re-released in a paperback edition. Hugh Dempsey's The Golden Age of the Canadian Cowboy: An Illustrated History came along in 1995. The following year Candace Savage published Cowgirls, a record of "one of the roughest and toughest groups of women in history."
In 1884 the Calgary Herald described the Canadian cowboy as one who was "a gentleman and shunned bravado." South of the border the image more violent and reckless. The debate about the cowboy still continues today, among academics and the rest of us. In Cowboys of the Americas, Richard Slatta has written that the significance of the cowboy is national in the United States, Argentina and Uruguay. By contrast, in Canada his importance is regional. In fact, while British Columbia and Saskatchewan have their share of great ranching history, the interest and debate in Canada now seem to be essentially within Alberta. Long may that debate continue.
Ken Tingley is an historical resources consultant who has worked in Edmonton on heritage preservation since 1973. He invites other writers to review a book that helped their vision of Alberta.
Reprinted with the permission of Ken Tingley and Legacy Magazine