Wasatch Mountains punished the Donner Party (before the Sierra Nevadas finished
the job) and they nearly did in John C. Frémont’s fourth westward expedition.
However, Solomon Nunes Carvalho would survive to tell the tale. He also brought
back the closest thing to photographic evidence—nearly three hundred daguerreotype
plates that are now sadly lost. Their grueling trek is chronicled in Steve Rivo’s
Carvalho’s Journey (trailer here), which screens
during the 2016 New York Jewish Film Festival.
hailed from Charleston, the largest Jewish American population center in
Nineteenth Century America. He was from a prominent family, but he chose to
pursue an artistic career and the scuffling that went with it. Trained as a
painter and portraitist, he moved in daguerreotype-making in hopes of better
supporting his family. Carvalho was an unlikely explorer, but his
daguerreotypes would provide Frémont the visuals he desired to support his
an unfortunate twist of fate, all but one of those daguerreotypes were lost,
but contemporary daguerreotypist Robert Shlaer has adopted the recreation of
Carvalho’s plates as his calling. Viewers will indeed learn a heck of a luck
about the daguerreotype process from Journey,
but it is bizarrely fascinating. It is truly a lost art in itself.
there is considerably more to Journey.
Frankly, Carvalho might just be the quintessential American self-re-inventor,
in his own way. There is no question he was a rather nebbish easterner, yet he
apparently won over all the manly adventurers of Frémont’s party. Essentially,
he bought into Frémont’s Manifest Destiny vision, but he also developed bonds
of friendship with the marginalized Native Americans and the oppressed and
vilified Mormons whom he met during his epic travels.
conveniently forget the relentless demonization of Mormons in Missouri and
Illinois that culminated in their forced expulsion. Of course, the media today
bends over backward to treat the LDS evenhandedly and respectfully. Yep, you
betcha. Nevertheless, Journey is a
refreshing antidote to many less edifying clichés you will still find in the legacy
Carvalho is a remarkable historical figure and
Rivo really does him justice by fully capturing the complexity of his era and
the drama of his life. Hopefully, Rivo’s film (eventually destined for PBS)
will lead to renewed popular interest in Carvalho as an artist and memoirist.
It will also greatly expand receptive audiences’ conception of mid-Nineteenth
Century American history, especially from Jewish and Mormon perspectives.
Highly recommended, Carvalho’s Journey screens
twice this coming Monday (1/25) at
the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYJFF.
Labels: Documentary, NYJFF '16, Solomon Carvalho