This paper grows out of my ongoing interest in the Calgary Stampede, the world's most extravagant celebration of cowboy culture. I build on two papers that focus on how Calgarians exploit the symbolic resources at their disposal, including the image of the cowboy, to construct their regional and municipal identities (Seiler and Seiler). Many historians, such as James Gray and Donna Livingstone, have written about the achievements of Guy Weadick, the American-born vaudeville entertainer who organised the first Calgary Stampede in 1912, but few (save for Donald Smith) have written anything insightful about the accomplishments of M.B. "Doc" Marcell, the American-born adventurer who photographed this important event. To some extent, historians of western Canada have demonstrated a bias in favor of the linguistic mode, almost blind to the richness of symbolic thought in other modes of communication, especially the iconic (Gross 190). Here, I initiate the process of remedying this unfortunate situation, by way of highlighting the important role Marcell played in documenting the event and suggesting that, working in the tradition epitomized by the pictures of such western artists as Frederic Remington, Charlie Russell, and Edward Borein, Marcell played a significant role in popularizing an image of the "Wild West" in general and of the Canadian West in particular.
Reconstructing the career of Marcus Belmont Marcell (1869-1939) has been no easy task, in part because he moved often and employed a number of names.(1) He was born Milward Belmont Davis, and spent his first six years in Louisville, Kentucky, where his father, Charles Wellington Davis (1844-1916) worked as a photographer. In 1874, the family moved to Athens, Georgia, where Davis acquired two photography galleries, including the Premium Gallery, which was located directly across the street from the University of Georgia. During this period, Davis earned great fame as a "photographic artist," and his pictures--oil, watercolor, and crayon portraits and grand landscapes--won competitions at the Georgia State Fair. In 1878, he expanded his business, opening a branch gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Marcell's mother, Mrs. Ada W. Davis (her maiden was Belmont) died suddenly on August 12, 1875, her twenty-first birthday. Five years later, Charles Davis married 19-year-old Emma Vonderleith from Athens, Georgia. They had three girls: Mamie, Lily, and Carolina. In 1887, Davis left Emma and the three girls, and with Marcell (who was 18) returned north to Cincinnati, Ohio.
Clearly, Marcell grew tip with photography in his blood. He did not get on with his father, and by 1888, he had left home. Initially, he made a living as an itinerant photographer, going from door to door, encouraging parents to let him photograph their children sitting on the pony he used as a prop. In June 1889, Marcell married Eva May Forbes, and the couple moved to Dennison, Texas, where he operated a portrait studio. Edward Forbes Davis (later Marcell), their only child, was born in Dennison on February 11, 1890. Shortly afterwards, the couple separated.
Marcell pursued a number of interests (cf. De Shon). During the period 1896-98, he worked in New York as a journalist, writing for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, The New York Journal. It is thought that, in 1898, he travelled to Cuba to report on Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, who took part in the Spanish-American War. Later, during the period 1902-09, he travelled across the United States and Canada, operating a scheme called the "Mysterious Mr. Raffles." Apparently, he would visit a town or a city for a period of time, selling tickets which entitled the holder to win a large prize, that is, if that person identified the "stranger" who walked the streets of the community. Presumably, this person (a collaborator) wore a disguise of some sort. Legend has it that this project earned him no less than $750,000. About this time, he changed his name to Marcus Belmont Marcell, deeming the name "Davis" not sufficiently exotic for show business.
In 1910, Marcell settled in Portland, Oregon, where he set up another portrait studio. He married Anna Alethe Paxton Pierce, who had worked as an assistant to the magician Charles Joseph Carter (1874-1936) of Indiana, known as Carter the Great. In June 1911 the couple visited London, where he photographed the coronation of King George V. They had two children: Natella Lavinia Davis-Marcell, born October 1911 in Oakland, California, and Victor Davis-Marcell, born July 1916 in York, Nebraska.
The Rodeo Photographer
Marcell once remarked that, after being locked in a studio for several years, he needed a change or he would "blow-up" (quoted in De Shon). Interestingly, this man of "nervous temperament" took up action photography as a way of satisfying his yearning for adventure. During the period 1911-14, he travelled across the western United States and Canada, following a fledgling rodeo circuit, developing the techniques which would inform his work. Getting close to the action, with or without a heavy camera, and obtaining images of high quality, has always been a challenge. Marcell succeeded where other photographers failed. People everywhere called him "the bucking bronco artist," thanks to his skill in fixing the action at the moment of greatest drama (quoted in De Shon). In this section I consider the equipment he used and reflect on some of the problems involved in photographing athletic events in general and in photographing rodeo events in particular, thereby establishing a context for appreciating the striking images he produced during the 1912 Calgary Stampede.
1. The equipment
Photographers have always used their equipment not only to record but also to communicate their impression of reality. 1n using their cameras with imagination, they convey a way of seeing. To convey his understanding of rodeo events, Marcell used a rugged but versatile large-format (4x5) Graflex Single Lens Reflex camera, not a modern (lightweight) 35mm SLR. Folmer and Schwing,(2) the makers of this instrument, were the first manufacturers in North America to popularize the SLR system (Levy 142). The Graflex was a heavy leather-covered mahogany-and-steel box, equipped with a fold-out viewing hood (the images were pretty dim, thanks to the slow lens of f8-f64), flexible bellows, and a spring-wound cloth focal-plane shutter that tripped just as the mirror flipped up.
We get a sense of the reputation the Graflex enjoyed if we consider an advertisement that appeared in Camera Work for October 1906: the text declared that THE GRAFLEX SLR was "designed for every kind of photographic work and [that] there is no other Camera like it." The ad carries an endorsement by Alfred Stieglitz, …