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Texas Reader: Taming the Land

The lost postcard photographs of the Texas high plains.

By E. Dan Klepper

It didn’t take long after the first photographic postcards appeared in America before Texans were enthusiastically mailing them off to friends and family. The postcards were often personal, featuring pictures of relatives, special events and the family homestead.

In fact, the proliferation of the picture postcard and the history of photography in Texas go hand-in-hand, a phenomenon explored with zeal by author John Miller Morris. Taming the Land: The Lost Postcard Photographs of the Texas High Plains (Texas A&M University Press, 2009) is the first volume in Morris’ series called “Plains of Light,” a visual record of West Texas life captured by postcard photographers of the early 1900s.

“Between 1900 and 1910 photography diffused across the entire Panhandle,” Morris writes. “Farmers and ranchers had closed the frontier, while railroads had introduced industrialized culture to almost every corner. If not the best of times economically — there was a drought here and there — it was certainly not the worst. American culture in general was in a mood of permanent celebration. A national spirit flourished, one that nurtured commemorative photography from national expositions to local main streets.”

These commemorative photographs were called “real photo postcards” because the negatives were used to print directly on photographic postcard paper. Many of the surviving images, along with Morris’ well-researched text, serve as documentation of the Texas West during its initial and most prolific growth. The postcard images included in Taming the Land are annotated with geographic and historical information, and the author has also provided the postcards’ hand-written messages.

“The messages that people wrote on the postcards are an appealing aspect of the medium,” Morris explains. “While some messages refer to the photo scene on the opposite side, other semiotics are often at work. Many young men and women documented their youth, friendships, and romances with real photos.”

An example is the message from “Monroe” in Canadian, Texas, to Miss Dell Courtney in Clovis, New Mexico: “Well here I am and not a word from you. What is wrong. Now you can see what is on the face of this card. Well this is what will happen if I don’t get a letter from you tomorrow. By By — Monroe.”

The message is humorously paired with the postcard depiction of a dramatic train wreck on the AT&SF Railroad near Canadian.

Of equal interest are Morris’ brief biographies of the postcard photographers’ lives. “Oddly enough,” Morris reports, “most of the photographers presented herein rarely ventured from their chosen region, as if they were bound to the land by affections and sentiments too great to ignore.”

One such photographer, Maidens Stennett Lusby, captured some of the finest early images of Palo Duro Canyon. His beautifully composed photographs inspired a movement to preserve the Palo Duro landscape. But as Lusby aged, his eyesight — the photographer’s foremost tool — began to fail. Morris’ talent as revelator shines here as he follows the photographer’s life story, just as he has done in each biography, to its final chapter.

“In November 1947 at the age of eighty,” Morris writes, “he traveled to Corpus Christi, registered in a hotel under an assumed name, and bought a new sports coat. On the twenty-fifth he rowed out into the bay at 3:00 p.m. carrying a suitcase. Near dusk he pulled a heavy chain from the suitcase and tied it around his waist. He secured it with a new padlock also from the suitcase and jumped overboard.”

Unfortunately identities and images of many other Panhandle postcard photographers have been lost to time. Yet Morris has done a fine job of gathering and analyzing the remains, then constructing portraits of the men and women who were, perhaps unwittingly, responsible for capturing much of our Texas past. Taming the Land represents the first volume in an ambitious collection of early 19th-century photography. For Texans specifically, it archives a vital era in the evolution of the Lone Star State.

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