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An Unforgiving Land: The Trek Photography of Lee Bergthold
The MAG: The Member Newsletter of the Lancaster Museum/Art Gallery Associates – June-August 2009

This exhibition, on display until July 26, features the photography of survival expert Lee Bergthold's third extended trek documenting his course through the Nevada desert and mountains as he and his three companions—Christine Bowers, Al Caler and Connie Simpkins—travel through waterless salt flats, extreme temperatures and abandoned settlements along the Hastings Cutoff. Making their way from Donner Springs, Utah to Battle Mountain, Nevada the trekkers followed a route that doomed the Donner Party to their wintry imprisonment at Donner Lake.

Bergthold's experience as a Marine survival expert during the Korean War has given him the wherewithal to enter the southwestern backcountry with camera in hand and emerge up to thirty-five days later, 15-20 pounds lighter, but with hundreds of images of landscapes that few humans have seen save for those scarce inhabitants that dwell in the often inhospitable environment. Over the course of a decade, Bergthold has completed three long-haul treks, each about 350 miles and taking 32 to 35 days to walk. All were undertaken as a tribute to the Donner Party, the group of emigrants who, in the winter of 1846/47 found themselves stranded by snow high in the Sierra Nevada near the lake that now bears their name. Of the 89 members of the party, 48 survived, for a time allegedly deriving sustenance on the flesh of their fallen companions. Bergthold has taken on the hardships faced by the California pioneers of the 1840s to determine if alternate routes might have saved the emigrants. He brings along his camera, and elegantly captures the beauty and brutality of the land in the tradition of the great photographers of the American West such as Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams. However, far from glamorizing the landscape, Bergthold acutely depicts the way in which it affects those who attempt to survive there. His photographs are primarily about people—himself, his traveling companions and people they meet along the way—and their interactions with the land.


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