While the West was still wild, a portrait artist and photographer who was more used to the refined ways of the city than to the rigors of the trail, signed on for a grueling outdoor assignment. His task was to photograph the odyssey of explorer John C. Fremont as he attempted to map a railroad route to the West Coast from 1853 to 1854.
The photographer, Solomon Nunes Carvalho, was an observant Sephardic Jew, who was born in Charleston, S.C., but traced his roots to Portugal. With the help of horses and balky pack mules, he lugged his photographic chemicals and daguerreotype equipment through blizzards and up and down frigid mountains, all the while striving to keep kosher on the trail.
Carvalho’s saga was chronicled by Teaneck author Arlene Hirschfelder in a book for young readers, “Photo Odyssey: Solomon Carvalho’s Remarkable Western Adventure.” She and her husband, Dennis, contacted documentary producer/director Steve Rivo, suggesting that Carvalho’s story was a natural for film. Rivo ran with idea, turning to Carvalho’s own memoir, “Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West,” as a key source of information.
The documentary blends digital and film cinematography with period artwork and photography, and also features interviews with present-day artists and scholars, including Ms. Hirschfelder. Actor Michael Stuhlbarg is the narrator.
Following a premier in San Francisco and with showings in cities around the country, the film will be screened as part of the Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Monday, January 25, at 1 and 6 p.m. The festival is a collaboration of the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
“I’m Jewish and I’ve spent my whole life writing about American Indians,” Ms. Hirschfelder said, explaining that she became aware of Carvalho’s journey while researching the Indian guides helping to lead the way for the explorers. “I’m always looking for Jewish-Native American connections,” she said.
The journey, the fifth and final of Fremont’s failed efforts to map the railroad route, made it through the Rocky Mountains as far as Colorado and Utah. Later, after recovering from the effects of the arduous journey, Carvalho traveled to the West Coast on his own before returning to his comfortable home in Baltimore.
For more information, go to
carvalhosjourney.com or nyjff.org.