All this month of January, the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival is featuring movies about Jewish identity, history, and culture.
One of them is “Carvalho’s Journey,” a documentary by director Steve Rivo. The film will be shown at the Adelson Educational Campus this Sunday afternoon.
The movie is the story of Solomon Carvalho, a portrait painter and photographer who, in the 1850s, makes a journey across the United States documenting John Fremont's expedition westward.
Solomon Carvalho lived in Baltimore with his wife and children. He had a business painting portraits, and he was a photographer. He made an unlikely big decision – to join Fremont’s exploratory expedition westward beginning in Kansas City. A presumably dangerous thing to do. This was the early 1800s. Why did Carvalho decide to do this?
“Trying to figure out why ordinary people, although Carvalho as we found in our research was quite extraordinary in many ways… but just for some reason, and I guess we’ll never really know without being able to talk to him, he decided this would be an adventure that might never happen again.”
Carvalho was the expedition’s staff photographer. Why did Fremont want a photographer along?
“Well Fremont was always interested in the latest technology like many great leaders he wanted the very best people to accompany him on these trips. One of the historians I interview for the film put it very well ‘When we think about cross continental expeditions of the 19th Century the closest parallel we have in our lifetimes is going into space’”
Carvalho’s photographic method was the daguerreotype. It’s the opposite of point-and-shoot, as we know it today. Give us a sense of the seemingly insurmountable task-at-hand.
“It was extremely labor intensive to create these things… Carvalho had wagons and wagons, I think there were three or four or five, filled with gear. He had to build fires to develop the prints in the middle of nowhere with nothing”
Fremont may have wanted him a long but not everyone else did. However, he was able to win some people over.
“We based the film the on a book length account that Carvalho published after the expedition in the 1956 – 57. He wrote a book called “Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West.” Travel guides to the West and stories of adventure were very popular as a genre of literature in the mid-19th Century. Carvalho’s is an excellent example of a very, very intelligent person who in some cases may or may not have been exaggerating some aspects of the story but more I think it’s leaving things out judiciously. For example one of the main things he leaves out in book account is the fact that he’s Jewish, which is an important fact of our film.”
The expedition encountered horrible weather. Cold and snow. Carvalho had to abandon the expedition. And his life was saved at a Mormon settlement in Utah. Tell us about that.
“Fremont was able to navigate the surviving members of the expedition to a small settlement called Parowan, Utah, which is the south of Utah. It is a very small settlement. The Mormon pioneers who were in Parowan took in the members of the expedition and nursed them back to health. Carvalho’s life was definitely save by one particular family. And he after two or three weeks of just being nursed back to the living is brought to Salt Lake City… And Carvalho is brought right to him [Brigham Young] and essentially presented him by these other pioneers and the two of them, Young and Carvalho, become fast friends and love that part of the story.”
Only one of Carvalho’s original daguerreotypes survives today. It was taken at a Cheyenne village in Colorado. What happened to all the other photographic plates?
“I don’t want to give away too much. We feel like our research does provide an answer. The majority, all except for one, of daguerreotypes that he created on the expedition have been lost and that is directly related to why pretty much none of us have heard of Solomon Carvalho. He should be more well known as one of the great pioneering photographers in American history, having made this expedition during in this very early period and made this images which according to everyone who saw them at the time and wrote about them were gorgeous and extremely successful.”
Steve Rivo, documentary filmmaker