Modern Explorer

Brent Phelps Madison and Jefferson rivers photo
Photographer Brent Phelps captured the confluence of the Madison and Jefferson rivers at Missouri Headwaters State Park in Montana on July 23, 1997.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Texas photographer Brent Phelps spent most of the last five years capturing the modern story of America's West through the lens of a camera.

It is a story first entered into western history by the epic journey of Lewis and Clark at the turn of the 19th century.

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with a crew of 31 men, set out along the Missouri River in search of the Northwest Passage -- the fabled direct link from the mouth of the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, allowing easy trading with the Orient.

After traveling for two years, crossing through 11 states and tracking more than 3,700 miles to the Pacific, the Corps of Discovery (as they called themselves) found the passage to only be the stuff of lore.

Upon their return, however, the explorers provided the young nation its first information about the land it acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, opening the West to settlers.

As the nation commemorates the 200th anniversary of their journey, Phelps' modern-day view of the land documented by Lewis and Clark will be on exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.

The exhibition includes evocative panoramic photographs that document the contemporary landscape along the famous expedition's route. On view from Sept. 25, 2004 through January 2, 2005, "Brent Phelps: Photographing the Lewis and Clark Trail" will feature 66 prints, ranging in size from 1-by-3 feet to 2-by-6 feet.

An internationally recognized landscape photographer and University of North Texas associate professor of visual arts, Phelps spent many months from 1997 through 2002 following the explorers' trail, but he was not trying to see exactly what they saw.

"Because there was no photographer or artist in the Corps of Discovery, most literature about their expedition attempts to see the land through their eyes," he says. "My purpose was to create a record of what America's West looks like today, after nearly 200 years of modern culture."

He spent the majority of five summers and many other months traveling in a Chevy pickup truck with a 1966 17-foot Air Stream travel trailer (which he refers to as his "popup toaster").

He logged thousands of miles trying to find, scout and photograph documented points along the trail.

Getting just the right picture of each place took patience, and he often found himself at the same site many times.

He didn't mind the repetition.

"Doing this project turned out to be a personal journey of discovery," Phelps says.

Photographing each site brought him in touch with not only the history of the area and the circumstances of the expedition, but also with the world today and his relationship to it.

The result is a unique collection of evocative images.

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 was not to portray the effects of American civilization negatively and depict the land as despoiled. Instead, he 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.

Barbara McCandless, curator of the Amon Carter exhibition, says the historic sites Phelps photographed "are bursting with symbolic meaning and continue to be relevant to our cultural identity."

"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 visitors to travel the Lewis and Clark Trail vicariously and participate in the experience of awe and discovery," she says.

By 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.

Viewers will be able to read Lewis and Clark's words, which relay their sense of wonder and conjures vivid mental images, and then look at Phelps' images from today. The combination will create a keen sense of place within a "then and now" context.

Some of Phelps' photographs evoke an atmosphere and luminosity reminiscent of paintings from more than a century earlier. For instance, the picture he has chosen of Beaverhead Rock in Montana (where Lewis and Clark looked for the Shoshone tribe in order to trade for horses to cross the Continental Divide) seems to transport the viewer to the Montana of the 1800s, despite the slight background evidence of modern civilization.

Many of the photographs present a lush picture of the striking landscape, and only when the viewer looks closely does the evidence of time rush forward -- houses in the distance, acres of land cultivated for mass agricultural production, or a city's skyline over the horizon.

Other photographs in the series, while equally as beautiful and detailed, bring the present day fully into awareness.

These include a scene of oil barges docked along the Missouri River (at the starting point of the expedition), and a backyard swimming pool shimmering in the afternoon light (just above a place along the river where Lewis and Clark camped).

"What I've found most interesting is that while I think I sometimes feel the same sense of awe they must have felt when the light hits the land just right, I can only experience a momentary sense of the wildness that surrounded them," Phelps says.

That's because even in places that are truly remote, the 20th century is bound to interrupt. A plane will eventually fly overhead or a soda can left behind by someone else will turn up on the path.

However, Phelps says he tries not to judge too quickly what the passing of time and modern life has brought.

"It's easy to lament the past when you realize that the wild animals that roamed the land are nearly gone, or that litter is a common element," he says, but the whole story is never that simple.

While that idyllic undisturbed wild may be gone, so is the need to cross the continent by foot, dragging a boat by hand up a river and carrying it around waterfalls. (The Corps of Discovery spent three months passing the series of waterfalls on the Missouri River.) 

And that's why when Phelps set out with his cameras in search of just the right image, the picture he wanted to present was an honest look at what the West is today.

He leaves it to the viewer to ponder the implications.

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