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Published October 12 2004

Exhibit shows photography professor's pictures of historic trail

FORT WORTH, Texas - While traveling through the West several years ago, a University of North Texas photography professor decided to take panoramic pictures of major sites along the Lewis and Clark trail to commemorate its 200th anniversary.

Six years, 50,000 miles and thousands of dollars later, Brent Phelps has completed the project.

His exhibit, "Brent Phelps: Photographing the Lewis and Clark Trail," runs through Jan. 2 at the Amon Carter Museum near downtown Fort Worth. It features 66 stunning photographs, some 2 feet-by-6 feet and many 1 foot-by-3 feet.

It took Phelps much longer than the explorers to travel the trail because he could not obtain enough grant money to take a lengthy break from teaching at the Denton campus. He spent summers and holiday breaks - and much of his own money - photographing the mountains, rivers, fields and beaches from Indiana to the Pacific Ocean.

Phelps didn't follow the exact route taken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1803-06, but he went to the sites during the same time as the men traveled. Phelps wanted the pictures to be accurate, although much has changed in two centuries.

"I wanted to show whatever was there, so I made no attempt to hide contemporary culture," he said. "The then and now: That's what the project's about."

His picture of Nightingale Creek in Jefferson City, Mo., shows the state capitol and other buildings and streets around the creek, which Clark named because a bird sang all night as they camped there in June 1804.

The project wasn't easy. Phelps extensively reviewed the men's journals, but some sites had changed because of shifts in rivers over time. He sometimes tried to find places using historical markers but found that some were 2 miles away from the actual site.

While photographing the original Fort Mandan site in North Dakota - where Clark wrote in January 1805 that the Indians could endure "more cold than I thought it possible" - Phelps' nose froze to the camera on the 17 degrees-below-zero day.

Before photographing Beacon Rock at the Columbia River Gorge in Warrendale, Ore., he thought he could get great views from Sacagawea State Park. But it was closed for winter, and he would have had to get special permission and pay a hefty fee. So he went to the other side of the river and drove in an area near some homes where owners obviously wanted to keep visitors away. Phelps' picture of Beacon Rock shows those houses in the foreground and the various "no trespassing," "keep out," "no through traffic" and "dead end" signs.

"It made me think, 'Wait a minute. Who owns the view?' " he said.

Barbara McCandless, curator of photographic collections, said the exhibit was a "perfect fit" for the Amon Carter Museum because it has always focused on the history of the American West and because Phelps is a local artist. The museum donated some money for the project, and McCandless helped Phelps obtain some other grants.

"We're just thrilled with the exhibit now and so pleased we all hung on to see it through," she said.

For Phelps, seeing his hard work hanging on museum walls is "a wonderful feeling" that he sometimes doubted he would ever experience.

"It was hard for me to say, 'OK, I've done enough,"' he said. "I could easily spend the rest of my life on this project."