Prior to the 1850s there was avid interest in mapping a viable overland route for the transcontinental railroad across the Rocky Mountains. Famed Captain John C. Freemont, one of the leading western explorers of the 1830s and 40s known as the “pathfinder,” intended to find a pass through the Rockies ahead of the competition. After a disastrous failed fourth expedition during which 10 men died of starvation and frostbite, and there were reports of cannibalism, undaunted, Freemont would attempt his fifth expedition. This time he was to bring along a professional daguerreotypist (photographer), to record the terrain, and provide visual evidence to prove his way would be the viable overland train route that could service the nation year round. Freemont discovered “gold” when he met Solomon Nunes Carvalho, an artist and portrait daguerreotypist who signed on for the thrilling adventure after one-half hour’s talk with Freemont.
The fascinating documentary Carvalho’s Journey written, produced and directed by award-winning documentarian Steve Rivo, gives an account of Freemont’s 5th dangerous expedition through the wilds of the west. The film particularly highlights Carvalho’s vital contributions visually documenting the landscape of a pristine, undeveloped America that can never be seen again. Rivo uses archival stills from museums and historical societies from NYC to Los Angeles. To round out the background and personality of Carvalho and Freemont as risk takers and forward thinking individuals, he relies on commentary by historians (David Oestreicher, Dale Rosengarten, John Mack Faragher, Johathan Sarna, Martha Sandweiss), scholars/authors (Arlene Hirschfelder, Eileen Hallet Stone), and others.
Rivo also interviews enterprising daguerreotypist Robert Shlaer, who gives us an appreciation of Carvalho’s effort, will, and talent to photograph under impossible conditions (temperatures/terrain), by discussing the specifics of the early photography process of daguerreotyping. Shlaer points out the difficulty of safeguarding the cumbersome equipment and chemicals as mules lugged Carvalho’s twenty pieces of luggage over the mountains.
An interesting feature of Rivo’s work is how he intercuts footage of Shlaer as the “modern” daguerreotypist retraces Carvalho’s steps. Shlaer attempts to daguerreotype the places and terrain that Carvalho once captured with his silver/copper plates on his unprecedented, groundbreaking first-of-a-kind photographic travelog west. Shlaer has a unique perspective of Carvalho’s vision and his importance for photographically chronicling an era of American history. Without his work, those at the time could only imagine such scenes through written records or paintings. Carvalho’s images authenticated the American west and brought it into the public domain, spurring on the great westward expansion that was to come decades later.
Rivo pieces together Carvalho’s incredible journey through a well written script sensitively narrated by Michael Stuhlbarg in effectively modulated tones. The filmmaker intersperses historians’ commentary, archived photos, maps, sketches, paintings, and other artifacts and memorabilia to supplement background details which include the discussion of Carvalho’s past as a Sephardic Jew born in Charleston, South Carolina, the city with the largest Jewish population in the nation at the time. In revealing Carvalho’s and Freemont’s background, character and motivations we begin to understand the unique individuals these two men were and how they could respect one another and appreciate the monumental task that lay before them. Carvalho’s Jewish reformist attitudes (his father began the first reform synagogue in the nation), and culturally expansive nature and brilliance was at the foundation of why he could leave his wife and two children and risk his life in the pursuit of an ambitious dream that wholeheartedly embraced the best of American ideals embodied in the constitution.
The documentary’s details are selected for their interesting content and arranged with spontaneity. Rivo’s editing is subtly precise. The filmmaker understands the necessity for continually flowing the variety of scenes, shots, and subjects to keep the cinematic pace lively and engaging. He is expert at producing a fount of information in a completely absorbing way which allows one to walk away remembering salient historical information. For example to punctuate a scene or moment in his narrative, Rivo includes well placed quotes from Carvalho’s best selling work about the expedition. He reinforces these quotes with anecdotes from Shlaer and the historians: descriptions of a Buffalo hunt, delays at the outset when Freemont became ill, Carvalho’s lack of talent as a horseman/mountaineer and Carvalho’s lack of readiness about the impossible adventure he was getting into, though he was never short on will or enthusiasm, except…
Rivo chronicles the expedition’s movements through the plains states to the foothills of the Rockies and beyond. He enlivens our imaginative powers and makes the travelers’ endeavors frighteningly present. As the journey is recreated for us, we know the challenges, are surprised at the accidents, and can envision the painful conditions these brave, foolhardy expeditioners put themselves through time and again. Though they attempt to avoid the worst of the winter snows, as in the previous Freemont expedition, they head right into the storms. As in the previous failed expedition, the men starve, their clothing is in tatters, they face frostbite and they begin to lose hope.
Carvalho’s Journey speaks to the adventurer in all of us. With an excellent script and adept editing and careful culling and inclusion of artifacts and footage of the places that Carvalho visited, the documentary allows us to marvel at our illustrious history and the brave and wild men and women who saw opportunity and took risks to achieve something no one else had done before.
Carvalho’s Journey screens on Monday, January 25th at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0803264445] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=039589123X] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=0806144742]