Thursday, January 21, 2016

NYJFF ’16: Carvalho’s Journey

The 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.

Carvalho 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 westward evangelism.

Through 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.

Yet, 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.

We 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 press.

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.