Friday, April 08, 2011

Billy the Kid Waits for Photo

April 8, 2011

Got up this morning and bailed into a painting I have wanted to do since 1991 when I first got the inspiration.

We believe Billy the Kid had his only known photo taken behind Beaver Smith's Saloon sometime in the fall or winter of 1880. He was just becoming well known as an outlaw, at least in New Mexico. The governor, Lew Wallace placed an ad in a Santa Fe newspaper seeking his capture with a $500 reward, and so either an itinerant photographer came through Fort Sumner, or, perhaps heard about this Kid and traveled from Las Vegas, New Mexico (a likely locale for the closest photographer) to capture the boy outlaw on tin.

This photographer (his name is lost to history) probably showed up in Sumner with a wagon load of equipment. Fort Sumner at that time was barely a settlement with no church or newspaper. Pete Maxwell simply rented out the crumbling fort buildings to a variety of ne-er-do-wells who attempted to carve out a business in the sparsely settled caprock country. Pete didn't even own the land the fort is on. His father, Lucien, simply bought the buildings. It's a tenuous arrangement in a tenuous locale.

The photographer would logically stop at Beaver Smith's Saloon (and no doubt at Hargrave's Saloon as well) asking if anyone wanted a photo taken for posterity. Perhaps the same photographer who took the photos of Maxwell's home took the same photograph of Billy. We don't know.

Two people remembered that the photograph of the Kid was taken at Beaver Smith's: Paulita Maxwell and Dan Dedrick. The photographer probably set up a makeshift studio out back of the saloon.

Some have speculated it could not have been made outside because there are no shadows in the photo, but that is nonsense. If the photographer set up shop in the shadow of a wall, say the back, outside wall of the saloon, there would be no visible shadow. Of course, he needed to bounce any available light up under the Kid's hat, so he utilized a white clothed gurney and had a bystander hold it beside the Kid to reflect light on the subject. The photographer brought along a head stand (which sported a wire brace for the neck) for long exposures. As the Kid's pals, Dan Dedrick, Tom O'Folliard and Chuck Bowdre, stood by and teased the Kid, the photographer took a six second exposure.

Perhaps he took other exposures of various locals.

While the photographer developed the photos, the Kid probably went inside, played some cards, then stood by the stove as he waited for the photographer to emerge from his wagon with four images.

Photo experts say Billy probably paid a quarter for them. He apparently put them in his pocket and walked over to Paulita's to give her one of them, before riding out to a sheep camp. The Kid moved from camp to camp to avoid capture but came into Sumner often for dances and to see the ladies.

And so, the photographer rode off down the road, having no idea he had just taken the most iconic and famous photograph in the history of the West. Even if it doesn't bring the $500,000 it's expected to bring at auction this summer, the photo is the holy grail of outlaw images. Oh, if only we could have warned him, imagine what that itinerant shutter snapper could have bought with all that money!

"History is a cruel trick, played on the dead by the living."
—Old Vaquero Saying

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