America’s fascination with the cowboy dates back to the 1850s, when the West was expanding and the demand for beef was rising. “Cowboy” quickly became an iconic term and was glamorized and romanticized by the tradition of Wild West shows, rodeos, and eventually Hollywood’s production of the Western. The cowboy archetype, a handsome man outfitted in boots with spurs, his stetson filled to the brim with manliness and bravery, is one of the most epochal of American imagery. ICP’s collection includes a fair number of cowboys, here are just a few.
Leonard McCombe, [Clarence Hailey Long, foreman of the JA Ranch, Texas], 1949 (1099.2005)
This portrait of Clarence Hailey Long was printed in 1949 in LIFE magazine. Inspired by the image, Leo Burnett, an advertising executive for Phillip Morris, changed the Marlboro campaign to include photographs of cowboys. The new imagery dramatically increased sales.
Louis Stettner, an American photographer, is famous for his street scenes of everyday, average life in both Paris and New York City. However (and unfortunately), a rodeo star with his beloved horse in Rockefeller Center is not an everyday, average sight, nor would it have been when it was taken in the 1970s.
Ernst Haas, a Magnum photographer, took this photograph on the set of the movie The Misfits. Directed by John Huston, and starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, the film was about a divorced woman, a cowboy, and his friend in the Western Nevada desert.
Mary Ellen Mark, like Louis Stettner, is also well known for her photojournalistic images of everyday American life. This photograph, part of her In America series, shows a young boy, decked out in a miniature version of the iconic cowboy gear, presumably waiting to compete in a junior rodeo competition.
This optical illusion by David Levinthal, is from his series The Wild West. Using a blurring technique, appropriately small scenery, and the right angles, Levinthal is able to almost fool his audience into thinking they are viewing a photographic portrait of a real, live, American cowboy, and not the plastic toy that it is in reality.