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Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy (2004)

APRIL 3 –OCTOBER 17, 2004
VAQUERO: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy

Photographs by Bill Wittliff

Today in the United States and in much of Mexico, with the prevalence of wire fences, corrals, working chutes, grazing systems, and docile breeds of cattle, the old horseback skills are in large measure obsolescent. But they continue to pull at our imaginations—at least the imaginations of those of us who, in one way or another, have an emotional stake in the American West. 
 —JOHN GRAVES, from the Introduction to Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy 

When Texas moved into the cattle business, its cowboy adopted many of the Mexican vaquero’s accoutrements and centuries-old methodologies of working herds in big country. Signing on in the early 1970s to witness one of the last traditional roundups on Mexico’s vast Rancho Tule, Bill Wittliff fixed the vanishing vaquero tradition forever in nearly 5000 photographs taken over a period of three years. More than 60 of the sepia-toned prints make up this show, which was exhibited in concert with the publication of Bill Wittliff’s monograph, Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy.
From the University of Texas Press, the 175-page book features an introduction by revered author John Graves, who writes of the kinship between vaquero and cowboy and about how the “old, old ways,” which Wittliff preserves in these “lovely and meaningful photographs,” still tug at the modern imagination.
In the afterword, BILL WITTLIFF remembers this early experience of his photographic career in “little blocks—almost like frames on a roll of film.” A small excerpt is presented here: 
—I had a used Nikon I’d bought when our son Reid was born two years before, so by then I knew the basics of photography, though I had not yet learned that good photographs are made by the eye, not by the camera.

—The ranch itself was 360,000 acres without a cross fence. Everything that grew out of the ground had thorns.

—Most of what we were seeing of the cow work had long ago disappeared in Texas, and one had the feeling that it was disappearing here, too.

—Everything was pretty much done in the old ways, though there were small concessions here and there to the ‘modern’ world, rubber tires on the chuckwagon being the most obvious.

—Initially I rode with the vaqueros, thinking a horse would be a good moving platform from which to photograph, but the vaqueros, by looks and frowns, let me know they thought a horse was more properly a moving platform from which to work cattle. I couldn’t both take pictures and work cattle without offending them, so I turned my horse back to Cuco, the remudero, and from then on I did my picture-taking afoot.

—I never saw an airplane fly over. Not once. This added to the illusion that I was walking through the long ago.

—I made my camp away from the vaqueros’ so my stuff wouldn’t get in any of the pictures. Just before sleep every night I’d try to imagine what I might see the next day that’d make a good picture. A number of times I got very close to the picture I had imagined—but then the use of the imagination has always been a form of conjuring.

—I never knew even one of the vaqueros who wished he were doing something else to make his living.