Modern Views of the Trail: Photography Displayed at Filson on Main

By Michael S. Mahoney
Filson on Main Manager

Clark's Signature, Pompey's Pillar, Montana

The Lewis and Clark Expedition set in train the demystification of the American West, but the land continues to inspire wonder and awe. The vistas that greeted the Corps of Discovery are still breathtaking, the mountains and vast prairies of the West having lost none of their stunning beauty. Texas photographer Brent W. Phelps has captured this grandeur in a series of panoramic photographs that now accompany The Filson’s exhibit “Lewis and Clark: The Exploration of the American West, 1803-1806.” The series of twelve 12-by-36-inch photographs are displayed in the room directly behind the main exhibit at 626 W. Main Street.

A professor of photography at the University of North Texas, Phelps set out to document what the explorers saw during their legendary journey. Concentrating on sites the expedition leaders described in their journals, Phelps has visually invigorated words penned two centuries ago. “I now thought that if a skillful painter had been asked to make a beautifull cascade,” Meriwether Lewis wrote of Rainbow Falls along the Missouri River, “that he would most probably have presented the precise immage of this one.” With camera rather than brush, Phelps has created a sunset image of the waterfall worthy of Lewis’s praise. The 11 other photographs in the exhibition are also accompanied by quotations from the Lewis and Clark journals.

Pelican Point, Missouri River, Montana

A rainbow arcs between two ridge lines in the photograph of Pelican Point, Montana, where for the very first time Lewis “ate of the small guts of a buffaloe roasted over a blazing fire in the Indian stile.” Fittingly, the scene of Beaverhead Rock features a storm looming in the distance. While searching for the Shoshones near that spot in August 1805, “the men,” according to William Clark, “Sheltered themselves from the hail with bushes.” Photographs of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and the Two Medicine Fight Site, where Lewis had a violent confrontation with a small band of Blackfeet Indians, highlight Phelps’s mastery of light and composition.

Though he records scenes of great beauty, pristine landscapes are not the photographer’s only interest. In much of his work we see the encroachment of man. A swimming pool, for instance, dominates the foreground of a photograph taken along the trail in Nebraska. Beside the Yellowstone River in Montana, a speeding train replaces the thundering buffalo that Clark feared might crush the canoes of the Corps during their return from the Pacific. Clark’s 1806 journal entry, with its descriptions of buffalo, elk and a giant grizzly bear, underscores the complete absence of wildlife in the photograph taken at the same location. A paved road further emphasizes this regrettable transformation.

Phelps hopes that his photographic chronicle of the Lewis and Clark Trail will ultimately be featured in book form. In a nod to the new, enlightened interpretation of the Expedition, Phelps has chosen the Falls of the Ohio as the book’s first trail image. His impressive work is certainly a fine compliment to The Filson’s current exhibit and the multifaceted story that it tells.  

Rainbow Falls, Missouri River, Montana

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