In 1890 F.M. "Frank" Steele arrived in Dodge City, outfitted a buggy with photographic equipment, and headed out into the open ranges of southwest Kansas, southeast Colorado, northeast New Mexico, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma to photograph cowboys at work. Many of STeele's iconic cowboy images can be found in books and articles about the cowboy and the West, but more often than not without attribution.
By the turn of the twentieth century Steele had begun to broaden the scope of his subject matter. He also, in addition to his field photography, at one time or another had studios in over a dozen towns in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. Steele considered himself an artist, and indeed his photographs are remarkable for their composition and aesthetic quality, but today his work is undoubtedly more important for its documentary value. Over the course of his career, whether intentional or not, Steele documented nearly every facet of life in the southwestern plains. Steele's photographs, for instance, clearly depict the transition from open-range ranching to crop agriculture.
The Center for Great Plains Studies houses a reproduction set of all known F.M. Steele photographs. Begun in 2004 with a State Library grant and only 58 known images, the collection now encompasses over 450 images, all completely digitized, available online, and with selected images reproduced oversize for scholarly study and community display. In cooperation with the Kansas Humanities Council and the Kansas Historical Society, a traveling exhibit of Steele photographs is available to the public.
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