Robert Gardner died on June 21, 2014.
After graduating from Harvard College, I found myself by happy accident, assistant to Thomas Whittemore, an eccentric, off-ladder academic with the title, ‘Keeper of the Byzantine Seal’ at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. This experience was the pivot on which my mind and interests swung, radically and decisively. It not only provided me with an opportunity to enter a wholly foreign culture for the first time but to do so with a guide whose interests stretched across periods, topics and places about which I had only the most rudimentary appreciation.
I learned some Turkish (largely forgotten), developed an appreciation for prayer rugs, investigated tile making in Anatolia and transported Coptic textiles and Greek coins to dealers and collectors from the Fayum to London all in addition to becoming passably adept at cleaning and stabilizing hitherto concealed masterpieces of Byzantine art. I was never again to work in Istanbul, but my path through life would take me into many even more extraordinary landscapes and cultures.
I absorbed a sufficient grasp of medieval art and history to get a job teaching at the College of Puget Sound in the state of Washington. There I was drawn by the writing of Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture) to the study of North American Indian societies of the Northwest Coast one of which, the Kwakiutl, I visited and undertook to comprehend by making a short film. This in turn led to graduate school in anthropology, once again at Harvard. While a graduate student, I was asked to join an expedition to the Kalahari Desert to make photographs, films and do elementary research on the Bushmen. Soon after I established a small production and research unit at the Peabody Museum named The Film Study Center. In 1963 I moved with this venture, entirely novel at Harvard, into the just constructed Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
From that time I have managed an average of a film every two or three years starting in 1964 with Dead Birds and including Forest of Bliss in 1985. Dead Birds was made in Netherlands New Guinea among a vital and wholly authentic Neolithic people called The Dani. Later came similar undertakings in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Niger, Ladakh, Colombia and India. In them all I have been instructed by the experience of being among and attempting to understand the meaning of lives different in at least outward appearance from my own. It has been my intention in all instances to discover those meanings in the actualities I witnessed and to set them down in a visual language comprehensible to the widest possible audience.
There were more places I wanted to go, some as close as downtown Boston and others farther away like Korea and Japan. I have also hoped to adapt what has been a career given largely to the genre of nonfiction to the requirements of more conventional storytelling. To this end I have worked on scripts for: a narrative film about the effect of a brutal murder and its aftermath on an isolated community of North Atlantic fishermen, Alan Moorehead’s book about Australian aborigines caught up in the exploits of Western adventurers (Cooper’s Creek), and John Coetzee’s novel (Waiting for the Barbarians) about people living on the margins of civilization. Two of these projects have come tantalizingly close to realization.
Nowadays I am writing as much as filmmaking and have a book called Still Points, a title referencing a line from T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets. This publication will contain more than fifty photographs accompanied by extensive captions. My collaborator in conceptualizing and preparing this book is Simon Malkovas, whose vision and fine reproduction of my photographs has been essential to its fruition. In between books, I am at work on a film I am calling Still Journey On, as well as Dead Birds Revisited andTwo Catalans (about Josep Lluis Sert and Joan Miro) with Rebecca Meyers. I lead a daily life in Cambridge, MA with a wife who is a psychiatrist (Adele Pressman), two children (Caleb, finishing medical school, and Noah, writing scripts in Hollywood), three older children (Stewart, Eve and Luke, engaged in busy lives of their own) and important friends and associates (Kevin Bubriski, Robert Fenz, Peter Hutton, Sharon Lockhart, Susan Meiselas, and Alex Webb) in a sort of loose confederation (Studio7Arts) making books, DVDs, videos and even films.