You’ve probably seen the photo: The infamous Wild Bunch, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, spiffed up for a photographer and staring into the camera.
The Smithsonian Institution considers the image—taken by John Swartz in his Fort Worth studio nearly 120 years ago—one of the most important American photographs of all time. Widely distributed on wanted posters, the picture helped the law track down the legendary bank robbers.
The photo is one of more than 250 featured in historian Richard F. Selcer’s new book, Photographing Texas: The Swartz Brothers, 1880-1918, which recounts the work of brothers John, David, and Charles Swartz.
Selcer learned encountered the Swartzes’ work while researching a book called Hell’s Half Acreabout Fort Worth’s red light district. He came across the Wild Bunch photo and noticed John Swartz credited as the photographer, then saw references to other Swartz photographs.
“I thought, ‘That guy John David Charles Swartz was a hell of a photographer,’” Selcer says, not realizing, at first, that he was looking at photographs by three separate men.
He quickly learned, and in 2013, he and genealogist Donna Donnell assembled an exhibit of Swartz images for the Fort Worth Public Library. That exhibit set the framework for the book.
The brothers’ photography includes family and individual portraits, plus images of parades, a fiddling competition, downtown buildings, crowds, a baseball team, beauty queens, and workers in a peach orchard. Many of the subjects aren’t identified, but the photos themselves give clues about their lives.
Each of the brothers had his own separate studio and style. John saw himself as an artist, not just a camera technician. David was the best businessman of the bunch, but quit photography to start a cosmetics business. Charles died young, when a train ran over him as he was setting up his camera to take a photograph.
“After looking at so many of the photographs, you get to where you can say ‘That sure looks like a David image,’” says Selcer, a Fort Worth native.
One of his favorite images is dubbed “Alice and the Looking Glass.” It shows an unidentified young girl with long dark hair looking at her image in a mirror. Another shows four people—two of them skeletons—playing cards. Selcer believes they may be students from a nearby medical school.
“I love them all—they’re like my children,” Selcer says of the photos.