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The Genesis of the Texas Cowboy

Heritage Society's latest photo exhibit, Vaquero, depicts cowboy life in the Old West.

By Max Jefferson February 22, 2016

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Image: Bill Wittliff

It’s safe to say that Bill Wittfliff, the Taft, Texas-raised photographer and screenwriter behind the epic western mini-series Lonesome Dove, is kind of obsessed with the American West. In his latest photo series, Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy, on view at Heritage Society, his affinities for photography and the American cowboy merge in a poignant visual tale of the country’s rural past.

The exhibit features more than 60 stunning black and white images taken from Wittliff’s stint on a north Mexican cattle range, where workers there still used the old vaquero ways of getting the job done. The Texas native packed up his camera after being invited by historian Joe Frantz to visit the ranch. Following his time on the range, Wittliff created an archive at Texas State University, which consists of a variety of different items related to the American Southwest. The vaquero gallery is a beautiful tool being used by the Heritage Society in its attempt to educate not only their growing number of international employees but also native Houstonians and visitors from out of town. This photographic presentation of the lifestyle and activities of these vintage horsemen has the effect of bringing the viewer to a familiarization with a way of living often depicted in American Western films.

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Image: Bill Wittliff

The vaquero tradition was born out of the conscription of Native American men and their use as cow herders in the 16th- century by wealthy conquistadors. These same herders taught the inexperienced Anglo settlers the vaquero-based fundamentals that originated from the Spanish conquistadors centuries earlier. Visitors will find that all of the texts describing each section of photographs are displayed either in English or in Spanish in an effort to appeal to Houston’s demographics. In addition to the photographs the exhibit features tools commonly used by the vaqueros, including branding equipment, spurs and rowels from the 19th century. Of the photo sections on display, the photograph that is probably most featured is the one of Bill Wittliff himself while he is decked out in a cowboy outfit. This photograph is the first one that the average visitor will see, as it is placed at the entrance to the exhibit.

One of the more fascinating photo sections is the one titled “Los Brutos,” a lively shot featuring cowboys chasing and taming a horse. The action and beauty displayed between the horses and the men in pursuit of them is what Wittliff uses to visually intrigue the viewer.

Another appealing section within the exhibit is the El Champo section, a fly-on-the-wall approach to showing the viewer the daily chores of the vaquero cowboy in their many varieties and dimensions.

On view through March 5. Free. The Heritage Society, 1100 Bagby St. 713-655-1912. heritagesociety.org

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