Two Medicine Fight Site, Pondera County, Montana, August 8, 1997, Photograph © Brent Phelps/ All rights reserved
From 1997 to 2002, Texas photographer Brent W. Phelps (b. 1946) made an extensive photographic survey of the trans-Mississippi West explored by Lewis and Clark. Inspired by the dedication and resolve of the Corps, the artist set out to trace their route, beginning in Clarksville, Ind., where Lewis and Clark joined forces in 1803, and ending up at the Pacific Ocean, where the survey team camped in 1805 before returning home.
In his 1813 biography-memoir of Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson described the explorer as “honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves.” In documenting the contemporary landscape along the expedition’s route, Phelps modeled his methodology on Jefferson’s quotation.
Previous photographic surveys of the historic route sought to depict a romantic, unblemished wilderness and recorded only sites that remained as they might have been 200 years ago. Phelps’ interest in the complex relationship between culture and nature, however, led him to draw on his background in landscape and social-documentary photography and to portray the sites exactly as they appear today. His intent, however, was not to portray the effects of American civilization negatively and depict the land as despoiled. Instead, the artist deftly walked a fine line between celebration and criticism and created seemingly unbiased records of a landscape where history, nature and modern-day civilization coexist.
“These historic sites are bursting with symbolic meaning and continue to be relevant to our cultural identity,” says Barbara McCandless, curator of the exhibition. “Through Phelps’ incredible attention to detail, his use of ironic juxtapositions, and his emotionally evocative treatment of color, he draws the viewer into the scene. The exhibition will allow our visitors to travel the Lewis and Clark Trail vicariously and participate in the experience of awe and discovery.”
Referring to the explorers’ journals and using Global Positioning System technology, Phelps located sites visited by the expedition and photographed the locales during the same seasons and under weather conditions similar to those witnessed by the explorers. In the exhibition, selected passages from the journals will accompany the photographs, drawing parallels between the explorers’ time and the present day.
Like other landscape photographers who have attempted to describe the broad scope of wide-open spaces, Phelps chose the panoramic format. He used a Linhof camera to produce 2 3/8-by-6 3/4 -inch transparencies, each with a width-to-height ratio of three to one. The panorama successfully mimics actually looking at the landscape, where the eye cannot encompass the scene all at once but roams horizontally, gradually taking in all the details. Phelps exploited the panoramic format’s strengths by frequently incorporating disparate details of the landscape within a single frame, playing elements of undisturbed wilderness off of symbolic references to tourism and human management of the land. The images thus take on a narrative component, relating the story of the land’s history and change over time.
Borrowed from www.cartermuseum.org.
Onions, Bombing Range Boundary, Boardman, Oregon, December 20, 2002, Photograph © Brent Phelps/ All rights reserved
Gallery View, UNT on the Square