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From Saint Louis to Shining Sea

Photographer Richard Mack spent two years trying to see America through the eyes of Lewis and Clark.

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The walls of the Newberry Library are decked out in America. Stretched from the ceiling are snow-flecked Idaho pines at dawn, a sky that's a range of blues on the North Dakota prairie, a cloud exploding over the Montana flatland. The hangings, measuring 10 by 22 feet, were blown up from 35-millimeter negatives--a mite of dust in comparison.

It's a useful way to think about photographer Richard Mack as he shot these images--as a speck on the landscape. Part of the library's new exhibit, "Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country," the photos were taken over two years as Mack slowly made his way across the country, shooting 1,200 rolls of film. He eventually culled the photos for a massive art book, published in March as The Lewis and Clark Trail: American Landscapes, a paean to the diversity of what Thomas Jefferson purchased and the only attempt, two centuries on, to approximate what the expedition might have seen.

It's a project that started, however, with Mack simply being short of work.

A commercial photographer, Mack, a lifelong resident of Evanston, makes his living shooting advertising and annual reports, work that requires being on location around the country. But after September 11 four assignments for the fall were canceled: no one was flying anywhere. That's when he happened to read an article on the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Although he only knew, as he says, "what you knew in high school about Lewis and Clark," he was looking for a book topic. "If you're a photographer, you always want to do a book," he says, sheepishly. He'd tried before--he'd had permission from the National Park Service to photograph the restoration of Ellis Island, for example--but had given up because there was more money in corporate work. Now suddenly he didn't have any.

"I read the article and ten minutes later the idea was formulated and I started research," he says.

Sent by Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark set off in May of 1804 from Saint Louis, at the mouth of the Missouri River, and went upstream, through what would become South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana, and then, after a desperate climb over the mountains, made it down to the Pacific. Then they headed back, a round trip of 8,000 miles.

For Mack, photographing the trail as Lewis and Clark saw it meant not only a commitment to cross two-thirds of the country but to be in each location at the same time of year as the expedition. But figuring out where he had to be, period, was hard enough.

Technically the expedition's route has vanished: after being dredged for shipping, the Missouri has widened and shifted, often by several miles. Furthermore, most of the rivers the expedition took have been dammed to control flooding and produce electricity; there's now a string of more than 20 dams along the route. And, modern-day difficulties aside, where Lewis and Clark were, even in largely unchanged country, remains unclear. Besides the few spots through which it's been definitively established the expedition passed--there's a photo in the book of the most obvious, a carved "W. Clark, July 25, 1806" on a bluff along the Yellowstone River--cartographic accounts of the expedition vary significantly. Last year, for example, the National Park Service had to revise the National Register listing of what they had believed was the exact spot of an expedition campsite in Montana when research uncovered better physical evidence a mile and a half upstream.

Working from Evanston with a pile of books, Mack mapped out his itinerary. (Later he discovered that roads that had looked promising on the map were nothing at all. Out west he ended up on dirt roads 90 percent of the time.) Because of his determination to cover the trail as Lewis and Clark saw it, he didn't simply drive the trail straight through. "If they were there in the winter, I needed to be there in the winter," he says. "And since they were there over three different years, for any given month I had three places to be." His first trip wasn't to Camp Wood, where the expedition started, but to North Dakota, where he hurriedly drove to photograph a campsite in the midst of a late blizzard in the spring of 2003.

"I traveled the whole trail, but I never did it in one fell swoop," Mack says. "I would go out to Montana for a week and then come back and go out to Missouri for a week." Leapfrogging across the country, he racked up 30,000 miles of driving over two years of part-time work. He did it alone, though his brother-in-law tagged along toward the end. "No one wants to go with you if you're a photographer doing landscape work," Mack says. "You'll sit in one place for hours on end." A four-by-five large-format camera--standard for landscape photography--was too cumbersome, so he shot with a 35-millimeter from shore and, occasionally, from a plane.

The first year, after dark, he'd often pull into a fishing right-of-way and set up camp. The second year, tired of putting up tents in the dark and rain, he bought a pickup with an attached camper. (He speaks of it with the reverence of someone who's found true luxury.) "I got stopped more than once by a rancher," he says. "Once you say what you're doing, most of the time they're pretty cool about it. And if they're not, you just turn around." Chance encounters were almost always more serendipitous than problematic. Frequently he'd get suggestions from strangers in bars and restaurants. "You'd meet someone out there who'd say, 'Oh, I know somewhere you need to go. I'll call this guy and let you get in on his land.'"

The only part of the trail Mack didn't follow is what runs through modern-day Kansas City; problematic sites he couldn't skip, he shot around.

Take the first photo in the book, of Camp Wood, which is now underwater. He expected that. He didn't expect that it would be surrounded by chemical plants. "They've got a very small little park that's right there, but 50 feet either way they're loading up barges with gasoline," he says. "So you're smelling it and you're feeling it and yet you've got to get some kind of shot that says, 'This is the kind of area that they left from.'"

What he settled on was an angle across the Mississippi toward the mouth of the Missouri, a scene that appears bucolic save for the dim outline of electrical towers in the distance, something Mack could've digitally deleted. "At some point," he says, "you've got to be true to the idea."

When a book's ambition is to retrace the path of a transcontinental expedition, publishing the book should be the easy part. It wasn't. When Mack discussed contracts with publishers, "the numbers they proposed were so low that it wouldn't have paid for me to do the book," he says. "But the biggest part was the issue of wanting to produce the best book." The publishers he spoke with insisted on a lower cover price, which meant sacrifices in quality--a smaller size, cheaper paper, and the loss of creative control.

Mack decided to do it himself, forming Quiet Light Publishing out of his office in Evanston and covering the start-up costs with a bank loan. (It's not a one-off enterprise: he's working on a book on the disappearing grain elevators of small-town America, and he hopes to publish other photographers as well.) He contracted out the printing to the artisanal Stinehour Press in Vermont, where he ultimately spent five weeks supervising a print run of 10,000 copies. (His day-by-day account of the process is at mackphoto.com/Vermont.html.)

"I thought originally that'd be reasonable," Mack says, "considering the number of people hitting the Lewis and Clark Trail." He pauses. "I wouldn't have printed that many if I'd known what I know now. I would've stayed at 5,000." He's reluctant to say what the printing costs were, adding that the money is secondary to the time involved, but the book's price ended up at a vertiginous $90.

It looks it, at least. The Lewis and Clark Trail: American Landscapes is a 256-page full-color slab of a book. It's a rapturous representation of the American landscape, seen both in grand wide-angle vistas and in the surfaces of wildflowers and water, with each photograph geographically labeled and arranged chronologically along Lewis and Clark's route. Apposite quotes from the diaries run alongside. It's a book that John Muir would've liked. Unfortunately, John Muir isn't buying books for bookstores.

"What I didn't know was how hard the distribution end was--getting it to store shelves," Mack says. "That's the number one thing." He has a distributor, but for the most part he's sold the book slowly by hand, talking to chains and small bookstores himself. Amazon and other online retailers have picked it up as well; half of his total sales have come from the Web. He's also gotten a boost from the awards he's won: the book took second place in the nature category at the International Photography Awards this year and was named a semifinalist for photography book of the year by the Independent Book Publishers Association. (The winner, Mack says with a laugh, was of nudes on Lake Superior.)

The book's also available at the Newberry bookstore. "I was thrilled to find his work," says Riva Feshbach, the Newberry's exhibits manager, who worked on "Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country" for four years. The show, which also includes books of the era, maps, and period photographs, aims to put Native Americans back in the Lewis and Clark story, complicating the popular narrative of the explorers conquering a basically blank continent. "From the beginning, we wanted the landscape to be the visual theme for the exhibit." But they didn't want it to look "antiquarian," she says, as many representations of the expedition do. They wanted a modern look. "The idea of the landscape is such an important link for people to the subject of the expedition," Feshbach says. "As part of the story, it's really important."

Over the course of his project Mack, who began it with a casual professional interest, went native: talking about Lewis and Clark's journey he displays an expansive, geeky knowledge of the trek, focusing more on the esoteric details of it than his own. "It was a great project and I wish it was still going on," he says.

In some ways, it is: Mack had hoped to photograph the famous White Cliffs of the upper Missouri by canoe, but the trip fell through. Instead he flew over the cliffs in a friend's plane, shooting their bleached, jagged profile from above. The photos are crisp and striking; they're in the book. But next summer--in his off time, over a year after the book's publication--he's planning to return, to shoot from the river, surrounded by the same craggy cliffs that shadowed Lewis and Clark.

Richard Mack lecture: "The Lewis & Clark Trail and the American Landscape"

When: Sat 11/5, 11 AM

Where: Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton

Price: Free

Info: 312-255-3510

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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