Cowboys, Indians and Mexican Car Races.....The Epic Images of Harvey Caplin 1914-1984

Posted by Matt Dougan on 22nd Sep 2014

Cowboys, Indians and Mexican Car Races.....The Epic Images of Harvey Caplin 1914-1984

You may not recognize the name, but undoubtedly you will recognize this man's photographic images. If you ask me why I chose to write about Mr. Caplin and his work?, it is quite simply the correlations of his image subject matter to my life.  I grew up in Texas, with ties to Farming and Ranching and I myself was in the cattle business for a time with my Father and we wore the stetson cowboy hats, the boxes which have Caplins' images on them are familiar to me. I have lived in Arizona going on 18years now and in my travels around the west and southwest both back as a boy and as an Adult I see these images and they take me back. 

My Grandad Estes who lived the life of the cowboys as seen in these photos worked cattle in the West Texas and New Mexico regions in his younger days and drove the Texas Oil men up into the Mountains of New Mexico back in the 30's and 40's. Grandad knew the life shown in Caplins' images, and he frequented the northern New Mexico areas on trout fishing excursions in the area which Caplin photographed.

I too have been to many of the locations seen in the photos of both Arizona and New Mexico, primarily Taos and the wheeler peak region, which are among my favorite places on this earth. I have hiked and stood first hand in some of the exact spots as Caplin. On my travels To and from Texas on I-40 I pass by Tucumcari, New Mexico and I can see the mesa in the distance that is in the background of Caplin's shot Steppin' out, (see below) and I think of these images and of the time they represent. This was a time of great change in our country Post war 1940's and 50's and into the 60's when some of the old ways still existed and yet the technologies were changing and modern times were coming. As the Bob Dylan song goes "For the time's they are a changin"....

Wheeler Peak Wilderness Taos, NM 1952 I have hiked up to this point and stood in the same spot. 

Blue Lake , Taos, NM 1952 I have hiked with my boys when they were young up to this lake and have some photos of us along the edge of the lake with wheeler peak behind us which is the mountain on which the cowboys ride.

Few artists have so completely dominated their subject matter, both artistically and historically, as Harvey Caplin did in the post World War II Southwest. Because he had such a thorough knowledge and love for the people and physical environment of his adopted Southwest, he was able to be much more than just another photographer of a very well documented region. With wonderful insights, he understood the environment of the Four Corners in much the same way as the renowned Taos painters did. Caplin used the clarity and depth of the light to create magnificent contrasts of light and dark, and of shadows and bright images. With enormous sensitivity for the region, he framed his pictures so that the composition itself often intensified an already penetrating subject.

Harvey Caplin's photographic career spanned more than forty years - from 1942 until his death in November, 1984. He created an impressive photo library of over 50,000 images of the land, people, animals, architecture and industries of the Southwest. Almost all of the work was done in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, as well as the Pan American Road race in Mexico in the 1950's.

The Man

Caplin would go anywhere, in any weather, with no regard to personal risk, as he worked cattle with cowboys, climbed cliffs with the Barbary sheep hunters, beat Mexican road racers to the finish line, and waited for hours in the desert sun and on the high plains and snow covered peaks around Jimez, and especially the Wheeler peak area around Taos, New Mexico- all for that perfect shot. He captured the translucent light, cathedral-like clouds, weathered rocks, and the dignity of the people, all in his own unique way.

Pan American Road Race Mexico 1950

Pan Am road Race II Mexico, 1950's

Hudson Hornet Pan Am Road Racer Mexico 1950's

Pan Am Racer Gas Station Mexico 1950's

Ramah Riders 1950 One of the most recognized of Caplins' Images

Sheep herder Canyon de Chelly, Arizona 1946 You can almost feel the sheer size and scale of the locale in the photos 

His images are an artistic and pictorial history of an ever changing Southwest. He rode and worked with the cowboys of New Mexico, taking extraordinary shots of cattle drives, branding, horse breaking, their daily lives in cow camps, of chuckwagons and campfires. The four most noted of these cowboy images have been printed on the Stetson hat box since the early 1960's and the imagery he presents of the cowboys is powerful and true to life.

End of Day 1945 One of the Stetson hat box images

Warm fire 1947 

Cow Country  Jimez, New Mexico 1950 another Stetson image Caplin Very well Captured the big sky and expanse of the southwest 

Brandin' time, Another Stetson hat box image Bell Ranch Tucumcari, New Mexico 1945 The stetson hat boxes with Caplin's photographs are a vivid memory for me seeing them in my grandparents homes in the 60's and 70's on both sides of my family. My mother's side were the ranching and oil drilling family the Estes' out of Monahans, Texas, Yes that is the same family relation as the Estes' of the Billy Saul Estes' fame...I'll write more on that interesting story some day. 

My dad's Father Sid Dougan, was a produce farmer in Prescott, Arkansas Near president Bill Clinton's birthplace of Hope, Arkansas and he wore what was originally a stetson fedora, which over the years became more like a narrow brimmed cowboy hat. I wore that hat after he died and before I went off into the Army. That poor ol' hat disappeared somewhere while I was overseas and I have yet to find it. What I'd give to have it back, it dated back to the 1920's......

Raised in upstate New York, Caplin was educated at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and came to New Mexico as a ground photographer at Kirtland Field with the Army Air Force during World War II. After the war he returned to New Mexico with his wife to begin his photographic career.

Some years later, New Mexico Magazine name Caplin, "New Mexico's Million Dollar Outdoor Salesman" because his photographs of the state were published and admired in so many national magazines, books and other publications.

Steppin Out Bell Ranch Tucumcari, New mexico 1945 I see this mesa evey time I pass by Tucumcari on my travels east and west on I-40.

Sunset II Bell Ranch, Tucumcari, New Mexico 1946

Sacred Mountain Shiprock, New mexico 1950 A mysterious place I have been to and photographed as well.

Pecos Ruins, Pecos, NM 1947 Ranch country with many adobe ruins as It is said, "all returns to dust"

Night white, white sands Alamogordo, NM 1960's I did some of my Army boot camp training on the white sands missle range and although a beutiful place it's quite forsaken in the spring and summer with temps well over 100 degrees daily.

One of the collectible Stetson hat boxes with Caplins' images. These boxes were seen in the closets around my grandparents homes.

The great life, Valle Grande, Jimez NM 1950 take a deep breath.....

One of Caplins' iconic White Sands Images Alamogordo, New Mexico

While my personal relationship with Caplins work brings it home to me, the artistic and historical value of Caplin's work is undeniable. He captured the American Cowboy and the Indians at work and play rare images of the rugged Pan American roadraces - ways and events of life that have changed but never fully disappeared from the American Southwest. Truly Visionary Harvey's artistic talent resulted in superb photographs many considered iconic in their own right.  One of his photos of Shiprock in the northwestern part of the state was the New Mexico Statehood Commemorative Postage Stamp in 1962. There is double pleasure viewing his work, which is stunningly beautiful as well as historically important. Harvey Caplin's work is a rare treasure an amazing array of images for all time....