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`Frontier Photographers’ is top rate

SHARE `Frontier Photographers’ is top rate

OK, I'll admit it. When KUED's Ken Verdoia told me that his next project would be a documentary about "The Frontier Photographers," I thought he was carrying things maybe one step too far.

A program about 19th-century photographers sounded about as interesting as, well, a documentary on dirt farming.

But the fact of the matter is that Verdoia - the man behind such television triumphs as "Utah: The Struggle for Statehood" and "Brigham Young" - has turned out yet another winner. Not only is "The Frontier Photographers" as well-constructed and watchable as its predecessors, but it has the advantage of taking on a topic that has been largely ignored.

This 90-minute documentary, which airs Wednesday at 8 p.m., Ch. 7, actually owes its existence to Verdoia's earlier projects. It was while doing research for "Struggle for Statehood" and "Brigham Young" that the writer/director/-producer came across the fascinating stories of the "Frontier Photographers."

Verdoia and co-producer/editor Nancy Green do a great job of transporting viewers back to the 19th century. Particularly for those of us who live in the West, it's hard to imagine that one of the first Americans to travel to Yellowstone was thought to be a lunatic when he returned with stories about geysers. It was only when photographers brought back pictures that people really believed the wonders of nature existed.

"Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons and the Colorado River are places we take for granted in the 1990s because we can drive our cars to a tourist spot, pull out our pocket camera and snap off a dozen pictures," Verdoia said. "But these photographers carried hundreds of pounds of equipment, worked with a very delicate glass-plate process that could be fouled by wind, rain or heat - and they managed to secure the first images of these places. They preserved for each of us this sense of what the landscape was like before it was tamed through westward expansion.

"Their photographs leave us a legacy of love of the landscape that is central to the Western experience."

Verdoia follows the careers of three men whose names, in all likelihood, will mean absolutely nothing to you until after you've seen "Frontier Photographers" - William Henry Jackson, Jack Hillers and Timothy O'Sullivan. And the documentary is a bit of a primer on the development and laborious process behind 19th-century photography.

But Verdoia wisely will win you over with this surprisingly engrossing story before getting down to scientific detail. And this is much more than a narrative about guys who took pictures - it's all put in the much larger context of the American westward expansion.

"Frontier Photographers" is an adventure story, traveling with stout-hearted teams of explorers. But it's also a sociological study, looking at how the photographs lit the fuse that exploded into the settlement of the West.

And it's also a look at how that settlement impacted the Native Americans and the landscape.

Not only is the documentary loaded with period photography - some of it so stunning you'll find yourself gasping - but "Frontier Photographers" is also illustrated by some magnificent modern-day film of the same sites.

Other than the use of more modern-day images, Verdoia doesn't break any new ground in the construction and style of "The Frontier Photographers." It's full of those period photographs as well as various people reading letters and reports written in the 19th century.

But the familiar style is effective nonetheless, and makes for 90 minutes of fascinating viewing.

In the future, perhaps I should trust Verdoia to know a good documentary topic when he runs across it.