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History of Photography in El Paso

August 20th, 2020

"Since the establishment of San Elizario as the first county seat in March of 1850, photographers have used still photography to capture the people and events of El Paso."

Lawless Beginnings

AerialPhotosElPaso: The arrival of the railroads in 1880's was a notable turn in West Texas history, as it raised El Paso from an unassuming desert town into a thriving, bustling city of businessmen, gamblers, entrepreneurs, prostitutes and outlaws. No other city in America could show it's true western grit like El Paso did, and indeed, true lawlessness was a big part of it.

Stirring The Pot

Even by 1900, El Paso was considered the "Six Shooter Capital," and with the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, things began to get stirred up even more. Along with the typical outlaws shooting it up with revolvers, there were military actions from the U.S. on both sides of the border. Adding to the pot of U.S. troubles was the pursuit of small factions and the efforts to de-stablize them. By 1917, there was no shortage of imposing images, including those of Ft. Bliss, the Madero's Camps, and the bandit-like antics of Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

Although El Paso claimed its unforgettable role in the Age of Gunfights, positive forces are undeniably worth mentioning here too, as early influences would eventually help put El Paso in a more positive light. El Paso, now known as the Sun City, is a destination spot for tourism, historic hotels, food, culture, scenery, and a major contributor to the manufacturing and industry sectors.

American Smelting & Refining Company (ASARCO)

If you want to know the story of El Paso, a good place to start is with photo archives. Yes, El Paso can be recognized from a simple black and white photo depicting a smoke stack that once stood over 500 feet high. No captions were necessary to convey this gigantic cylindrical structure that was once considered an industrial marvel. Arguably, ASARCO helped to establish El Paso as a manufacturing hub, and although it no longer exists, proud El Pasoan's can still say it once belonged to El Paso.

El Paso Growth

It remained a turbulent time in El Paso, but was also showing positive signs of growth. By 1920, the population had skyrocketed to 77,000, and camera photography continued to make a larger and brighter mark on the El Paso timeline. Alfonso Casasola, an established Mexican photographer, came to El Paso and founded a successful photography business in 1921. With his studio on 511 S. El Paso Street, he contributed to the archives of historical imagery of El Paso.

Argualbly, ASARCO and the Mexican Revolution were heavy influences that inspired photographers to create extensive picture archives of El Paso. However, there was a lot of activity going on in the El Paso area during the turn on the 20th Century, and thus a diverse collection of imagry can be seen from postcards, portraits, drawings, books and art.

Archive Sources

The UTEP research guides features a special collection of historical information containing photos, negatives, books, art, and other sources of information. If you are looking for a specific item, you can make an appointment at (915) 747-5697.

El Paso Herald-Post - The El Paso Herald-Post contains records and photographs from 1881-1997, and also contains negatives obtained between 1980-1997.
ASARCO - Historical records of the former ASARCO El Paso smelter site. The trustee of the site turned over many documents that had been left at the site to the University of Texas at El Paso Library.
Hugh Bascom Wilson Railroad Collection - Consists of materials relating to the history of the El Paso Division of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Materials include books, photographs, maps, periodicals, blueprints, blue line drawings, reports, bulletins, and correspondence.

Ada Tharp Photograph Collection

This elaborate collection contains photographs dating from about 1870 to 1925. The types of photographs include tintypes, cabinet cards, cartes de visite, silver gelatin prints, and photo booth snapshots. The album was abandoned in a freight forwarding facility in Kentucky and little is known about the creator of the collection. It was found by an employee who took it to a local library where a librarian noticed that many of the photographs had been taken by El Paso photographers. She donated them the UTEP Library. A small amount of correspondence found with the album was addressed to Ada Tharp, Thorp, or possibly Thorne, so we decided to give her credit as the original owner. Only a few of the photographs are identified. The subjects of the photographs include African American men in military uniforms, many photos of African American women and children, and other well-dressed people. Besides El Paso, Texas, many other locations are mentioned including other cities all over the U.S.

Many talented photographers have added to the image archives of the beautiful Southwest. Their efforts have created memorable shots of the first mule-drawn streetcars service (1881), bustling downtown streets and hotels (1920's), the El Paso Municipal Airport (1929), the Mt. Franklin Star (1940), and many modern-day photos taken by the Brian Kanof photography studio. They've all helped to identify El Paso as a unique city.

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