Thom Ross’ Amazing Buffalo Bill Wild West Show Photo Recreation

Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show

In September of 1902 the above photo was taken of showman “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his traveling Wild West Show on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. It was a massive photograph, especially for the day, of one of the world’s most famous and popular entertainment acts. It’s a tremendous piece of history.

Buffalo Bill was in town with his act performing, much as he had done all over the United States and Europe in the late 1880’s to early 1900s. Buffalo Bill’s act included a re-enactment of the riding of the Pony Express, Indian attacks on wagon trains, stagecoach robberies, and as a grand finale a re-enactment of Custer’s Last Stand in which Cody himself portrayed General Custer, according to wikipedia.

Artist Thom Ross for the past two weeks has staged an amazing and dramatic reinterpretation of this original photograph at the exact site of the original — 106 years earlier just below the Cliff House on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Ross built life sized replicas cut from plywood and extensively painted all of the characters on horseback in the original photo. I talked to Ross last week about his creation and he told me that it took him two years to make all of the figures. Two years of work to recreate a single photograph for a two week public exhibit.

Buffalo Bill and the Indians on the Beach-80

I was incredibly impressed by Ross’ vision in making this historic re-enactment. It is a testament to artistic vision and the role that endurance plays in creating art. What pleased me even more was that it was a public exhibit open to all and free of charge on a public beach. Rather than lock his art up and restrict its access, Ross let the whole world come see his creation for free. Photography was allowed and Ross was on hand to answer questions and discuss his creation — a tremendously generous gesture made by an artist to the world.

I’ve been wanting to play around with Microsoft’s new Photosynth technology for a while now but had been unable to think of just the right sort of way to use it, until I experienced Ross’ installation first hand. Microsoft’s Photosynth (which is available to the public for free and comes with 20GB of storage) allows you to upload photos and then creates a linked 3D like stitched version of all of the photographs. Unfortunately you have to be using a Windows operating system in order to see this photosynth (sorry Mac users).

So without further ado, I present you Thom Ross’ amazing installation in all it’s Photosynth glory. This photosynth represents 440 different photographs that I made at this installation. If this is your first time looking at a photosynth I’d recommend that you simply click the play button to start and then after seeing how this view presents play around with it yourself. You can get to the photosynth by clicking through here.

Note: this installation was not without controversy. While I attended the exhibit I was approached by Native Americans who were protesting it. They felt that the old “Wild West” shows were similar in nature to black minstrel shows and were degrading and exploitative.

In their literature they stated:

“Is it likely that we would see an installation of 100 black minstrel performers standing behind their white promoter on the beach in San Francisco? Especially one created by a white artist? What do you think the reaction of the black community might be to such an installation?”

Personally, while I can appreciate that some might find the installation offensive, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with recreating such a historic photograph. Thom Ross is not endorsing these shows by recreating this photograph. He is simply reinterpreting a historical moment.

This is not the first public installation by Ross. Ross previously has reproduced in similar fashion Willie Mays famous 1954 World Series catch on the exact spot where he caught the ball 50 years ago to the day as well as a version of Custer’s Last Stand which included 200 life sized characters locked in the famous Battle of Little Bighorn on the site where the battle took place.

Thanks to Thom Ross for this fantastic public art and for enriching the visual landscape of Ocean Beach and the City of San Francisco for the past two weeks.

All of the figures in Ross’ reinterpretation are available for purchase now that the show is over. If you’d like to inquire about purchasing them I’d point you to Ross’ website.

Link to a story on Ross’ exhibit from the San Francisco Chronicle. Another blog post on the exhibit from citysnaps.

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  1. Alan Morris says:

    I was very impressed with Thom’s work. I met him Saturday morning and asked him how he felt about the protesters. He said “It hurts” but quickly agreed to take down anything that they felt was offensive. Thom is very sensitive. By they way he is a native San Franciscan although he now lives in Seattle.

  2. Brad says:

    I also visited Ross’ exhibition and took some pix (Friday and Saturday) and thought he and his work were great.

    He was especially good around kids; motivating them with respect to art, working hard, and setting your sights high.

    I also talked to the Native American protesters on the sidewalk who made persuasive points.

    In the end, it was good to have that balance.

  3. Brad says:

    When I was talking to the Native American guys protesting on the sidewalk, a tourist came up to the guy with the bullhorn (Antonio Gonzales) and asked him:

    “Are you the artist who made those nice figures down there on the beach, I really love them!”

    Everyones mouth suddenly dropped open and stared in disbelief – and then a moment later all started laughing…

    Was the best moment of the day…

  4. photosynth seems pretty cool, thanks for reminding me that it was working. After the first day problems I forgot that it was out there.

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