In 2021, As travel began to open up again after the pandemic lockdown, Brian Smale got just the kind of assignment he’d been longing for: a 10-day trip along roads less traveled in Oregon, creating images for a Smithsonian Magazine story.
The writer of that story, Tony Perrottet, had dug up a 1940 WPA guidebook, Oregon, End of the Trail, and used it as a roadmap to explore what’s changed—and what’s still remarkably unchanged—about this remarkable region of the Pacific Northwest.
Brian followed Tony’s path starting in Pendleton, where he shot a portrait of a hotel manager in what had been one of the “Cozy Rooms” of a former brothel. He also photographed the “Chinese Tunnels,” where Chinese mining laborers who were persecuted and banned from taking part in the local economy, established their own underground city beneath the downtown, that included living quarters, a jail, a saloon, butcher shop, a laundry, and even an opium den.
Next stop was Joseph, a former logging outpost near the shores of Wallowa Lake, a crystalline glacial lake, high in the Wallowa mountains. Like every place he visited, it’s a mix of rugged Old West, and hip New West.
Minam River Lodge
And so was his next stop: the Minam River Lodge, which is only accessible by horse, foot, or plane. Built in the 1950s, this beautiful mountain retreat has been completely restored by a tech entrepreneur who used to visit as a kid, and now rewards guests who make the trek with carefully crafted food, much of it grown in the lodge’s garden, and local wines.
Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland
Next stop was the Nez Perce Wallowa Homeland, where Brian shot portraits of Joe McCormack, one of the people who helped secure the land for the Homeland—one of only three members of the Nez Perce tribe who today live valley, He also captured images of Allen Pinkham, a dugout canoe carver, hewing a canoe from a single log.
Then to Maxville, the remains of a mining camp that resisted Oregon’s racist current in the 1920s. Maxville was then a settlement of about 400 people, including about 40 Black laborers who worked at the nearby lumber camp, despite the state’s Black Exclusion laws. Here, Brian captured images of Gwendolyn Tice, the daughter of one of those Black loggers, who is leading the effort to preserve the site.
From there, the trail took Brian to Portland, following the Columbia River, where he created some spectacular landscapes shots.
For Brian this job was more than just a welcome return to travel. It was an invitation to explore and refine the skills he’s worked hard to perfect throughout his career: compelling portraiture, powerful storytelling, and a sixth sense for discovering and capturing a vivid sense of place.