NY Times

Bringing Faraway Worlds Closer, And Questioning Western Intrusions” by MANOHLA DARGIS in the NY Times Critic’s Notebook.

Excerpt from the feature:

“In an interview about ‘Rivers of Sand,’ Mr. Gardner said that while he was editing it, ‘I kept being reminded that I especially disliked Hamer men, and I don’t think I would have felt differently had there been no women’s movement.’ In other words, his humanity, not politics, made the women’s situation clear. It was, he added, ‘a painful life for both sexes’ and so the question became, Why not just say as much in the film? Because he made a choice: rather than employ a false objectivity, he embraced what he calls larger truths.

‘I don’t think anthropology is doing its job by being value free,’ he said in the same interview. And, truly, partly what makes these great films galvanizing is that they’re not value free.”


Village Voice

Excerpt from the Village Voice feature on Robert Gardner:

“A man of many worlds, Robert Gardner is a descendent of Boston aristocrat Isabella Stewart Gardner (as in the Museum), the founder (and funder) of Harvard’s Film Study Center, and mainly the globetrotting ethno-aesthete of American cinema—a filmmaker whose documentaries have been hailed by the avant-garde’s godfather Stan Brakhage and anthropology’s grand dame Margaret Meade.”

Village Voice

The Brooklyn Rail

FORESTS OF UNCERTAINTY: The Contentious Nonfiction of Robert Gardner” by Rachael Rakes in The Brooklyn Rail.

Excerpt from the feature previewing Gardner’s work prior to his retrospective at New York’s Film Forum in November 2011:

“Gardner was sensitive to the inevitability of change and desperate to capture a before image, which to a large extent is what makes the film seem problematic in its portrayal of otherness. Close-ups of chapped hands weaving or tending crops last for minutes on end, sweeping views of nature amplify distance. Yet these images are vital; the Dani are changing, in most cases have changed. The Dani people, considered “Neolithic” only 40 years ago, are now being ungracefully integrated into modernity, and as Gardner persistently feared, will emerge as superficially the same as people everywhere else, and judged upon their approximation of sameness. Dead Birds does depict a white man—or what Jay Ruby calls in a famous (in visual anthropology academia) critique “Yanqui Brahmin” —going to the land of strangeness and past and bringing back an explanation of different ways. But, importantly, Gardner has never claimed that his pictures bear any authority of interpretation, and he is clear in demonstrating his awareness of this as he documents his own strangeness to his subjects.”


Human Documents – Eight Photographers


“Human Documents is a book of stunning photographs which collectively show that visual art is more than merely illustrative.”

-Tracey Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains

“Some scholars are remembered as having been pioneers in their fields. In the case of Robert Garder, an entire academic discipline, visual anthropology, came into being simply to formalize what he was already doing. This is a beautiful and profound book, as significant as any to appear since Susan Sontag’s On Photography.”

– Wade Davis, author of The Serpent and the Rainbow

Human Documents, a book showcasing the work of eight photographers – Kevin Bubriski, Robert Gardner, Christopher James, Susan Meiselas, Adelaide de Menil, Michael Rockefeller, Jane Tuckerman, and Alex Webb.

In this book Robert Gardner introduces the work of photographers with whom he has worked over a period of nearly fifty years under the auspices of the Film Study Center at Harvard. Their images achieve the status of what Gardner calls “human documents:” visual evidence that testifies to our shared humanity. In images and words, the book adds to the already significant literature on photography and filmmaking as ways to gather both fact and insight into the human condition. In nearly 100 images spanning geographies and cultures including India, New Guinea, Ethiopia, and the United States, Human Documents demonstrates the important role photography can play in furthering our understanding of human nature and connecting people through an almost universal visual language.

Author and cultural critic Eliot Weinberger contributes the essay “Photography and Anthropology (A Contact Sheet),” in which he provides a new and intriguing context for viewing and thinking about the images presented here.

Visit The Berkshire Review for the Arts to read Michael Miller’s review of Human Documents.

The Impulse to Preserve – Reflections of a Filmmaker


“What gives Gardner’s book its kick, its emotional and intellectual impact, are his meditations, short essays in boldface type, at the opening and closing of The Impulse to Preserve. Gardner allows us to consider that the worlds he has filmed so beautifully were disappearing as his camera rolled… Gardner has, as the poet Charles Simic says in his introduction, refused to accept the discord between reality and imagination. He has been in the real world fully imagining, and this book is part of what he brought back.” William Corbett, The Boston Phoenix

“Robert Gardner is an anthropological filmmaker who has for four decades balanced on a tightrope between the sensibility of the artist and the discipline of the ethnographer. This is his memoir of that extraordinary feat. . . . Turning the pages, we come across some of the iconic images in ethnographic film as well as apercu of light and line that hold their own artistic truth.” Arthur Kleinman, author of The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing and the Human Condition

Despite Primo Levi’s dire warning about the inadequacy of documentary evidence, Robert Gardner’s work shows that capturing the light reflected from actuality has its revelatory moments. Including nearly 500 photographs, The Impulse to Preserve contains the thoughts and images of a lifetime spent probing human experience in the world’s most remote corners. In each undertaking, an issue or condition common to humanity is intently observed. In Neolithic West Papua in 1961, it is ritual warfare and revenge; in Nigeria 1965, ritual pain; in Ethiopia in the late sixties, male supremacy; in Niger 1978, envy; and in Benares, India, 1985, mortality and its expression in worship.

“This collection of essays, meditations, edited journal entries, and photographs, describes the career of a notable anthropologist and filmmaker. Taken as a whole, it weaves a story that has much more to do with art than with any of the sociological disciplines . . . a fascinating, indeed spellbinding journey of the mind and heart.” Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains

Download a PDF of Peter Loizo’s review in Anthropology Today (April 2008).

In & Out


In & Out features the writing of poet Fanny Howe and SX-70 Polaroids made by Robert Gardner during the filming of Ika Hands in 1981. Gardner shot a series of 87 images (one every twenty seconds) from a fixed position that captured the activity in the doorway of an Ika dwelling. In 2009, the images were given to Fanny Howe, who shuffled them, and wrote a short poem that weaves the images together in a new way.

34 pages, unfolded jacket size is 40″ x 12″, folded size is 9 1/2″ x 12″. The inside of the book jacket displays a grid of all 87 images in chronological order and selected images are reproduced full size in the book itself. First edition of 250 signed and numbered copies. Designed by Fogelson-Lubliner, printed November 2009 by Meridian Press.

Fanny Howe is a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2009), theGriffin Poetry Prize (2005), and the Lenore Marshall and Poetry Prize (2001).

Just Representations

by Robert Gardner

This book presents selected writings by Robert Gardner. There are journals he wrote during stays in different parts of the world, observing and reacting to diverse ways of life, traditional and modern. There are his accounts of film projects envisioned and planned but not completed. There are essays, more formal and systematic than the journals, on ways of life in pre-modern cultures that Gardner has observed first hand. We also read his voiceover narrations from the films Dead Birds (1961) and Rivers of Sand (1975), which come to life in a new way on the page. And in an interview, letters, and articles, Gardner addresses the subject of filmmaking—his own and that of others—and reflects on film’s relation to anthropology and, more broadly, to the very project of human beings to understand reality.

The material here, most all of it previously unpublished, is presented in three sections. In Parts I and II we see Gardner in the practice of just representation, or aiming at it. In Part III we see him talking about just representation, the concerns and the issues of it, specifically in his own filmmaking work and to some extent in that of others. He talks about filmmaking, not writing—but the writings of Parts I and II cannot be disentangled from filmmaking. There is the same sensibility and drive to expression at work. And as Gardner’s brief introductions to each piece make clear, the writings come out of filmmaking situations, out of preparation for or work on various filmmaking projects. The writings extend what the filmmaking does, complete what the filmmaking does not complete, take byways from the filmmaking and make new discoveries—and, of course, feed back into the filmmaking. The writing and filmmaking complete each other.

Gardner is fascinating to read. He puts himself into difficult and telling situations, goes where most of us want to go, at least mentally, and gives account with his eye for important detail and, always, his penchant for evaluating the motives that drive people and the forces that bear down on them, as they live their lives and create what they create. Gardner holds a unique place in our culture. He stands for a certain humanistic anthropology, in filmmaking and in writing. I can search myself, he seems to say, and find what binds me to another and what thus can give insight into another—we are of a kind, after all, and participate in a general nature. This self-search and making of connection realizes itself in the techniques and expressive means of the films, and in Gardner’s distinctive way with words in the journals, reflections, and self-reflections making up this book.

  • aerial landscape by Robert Fulton, Chile 1999.

Making Dead Birds – Chronicle of a Film


Robert Gardner’s classic Dead Birds is one of the most highly acclaimed and controversial documentary films ever made. This detailed and candid account of the process of making Dead Birds, from the birth of the idea through filming in New Guinea to editing and releasing the finished film, is more than the chronicle of a single work. It is also a thoughtful examination of what it meant to record the moving and violent rituals of warrior-farmers in the New Guinea highlands and to present to the world a graphic story of their behavior as a window onto our own. Letters, journals, telegrams, newspaper clippings, and over 50 images are assembled to recreate a vivid chronology of events.Making Dead Birds not only addresses the art and practice of filmmaking, but also explores issues of representation and the discovery of meaning in human lives.

Gardner led a remarkable cast of participants on the 1961 expedition. All brought back extraordinary bodies of work. Probably most influential of all was Dead Birds, which marked a sea change in nonfiction filmmaking. This book takes the reader inside the creative process of making that landmark film and offers a revealing look into the heart and mind of one of the great filmmakers of our time.

“This is an immensely valuable book for what it tells us about the evolving analytical and creative process of making a documentary film. Knowledge of this kind is hard to come by, because verbal accounts are so often ephemeral and so few filmmakers write cogently about their work. Here we have the marvelous exception. This book is a kind of dossier, a fascinating narrative carefully stitched together from Gardner’s own writings and a range of related resources. At its heart are Gardner’s letters and journal entries, but these are accompanied by photographs and documents that provide a visual and evidentiary complement to Gardner’s poised and always eloquent prose.”

— David MacDougall, ethnographic filmmaker and author of The Corporeal Image

“This revealing text is a serious addition to written and visual publications about Dani encounters, and it leaves the reader wishing for more.”

— Steven Feld, editor-translator of Jean Rouch: Cine-Ethnography

“Robert Gardner returns cinema to its most primal and far-reaching task and mission: discovering the world.”

— Tom Gunning, author of The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity

“Gardner’s thoughtful, often eloquent journals and correspondence with filmmakers and colleagues – much of it written on location in the New Guinea highlands – provides a rare glimpse into the painstaking evolution of Dead Birds.”

— Peter Matthiessen, author of Under the Mountain Wall



Limited Edition

First edition, first printing. Limited edition of 100 copies, with an archival inkjet print of Gardner’s 1961 photograph “Ritual War II,” signed and numbered in pencil on the lower margin by Gardner. The print, which was produced by Steven Stinehour, measures 10 x 10 inches on 11 x 11-inch Hahnemeule rag paper and is contained in a numbered white paper sleeve, a photographically illustrated and numbered card-stock sleeve and an additional clear vinyl envelope. The book is signed and numbered in black ink on the final page by Gardner. Soft black cover, no dust jacket as issued.

Making Forest of Bliss – Intention, Circumstance, and Chance in Nonfiction Film


Robert Gardner and Akos Ostor

Forest of Bliss is intended as an unsparing but ultimately redeeming account of the inevitable griefs and frequent happinesses that punctuate daily life in Benares, one of the world’s most holy cities. The film unfolds from one sunrise to the next without commentary, subtitles or dialogue. Three central figures are a healer of great geniality who attends the pained and troubled, a baleful and untouchable King of the Great Cremation Ground who sells the sacred fire, and an unusually conscientious priest who keeps a small shrine on the banks of the Ganges.

“Why all this ambiguity and mystery about these things I’ve called simple elements?” Asks Gardner in the book. “I’m not sure, except that I thought that the audience would not simply wait for the mysteries to be dispelled but would come up with their own solutions, supply their own answers, and so, in that way, they would be doing their own anthropology I would be content if they merely registered the facts: fires, scales, boys, kites, thermals. I’m confident that they would then, at some level of their imagination, work out their meaning.”

Poet Seamus Heaney wrote of the “deep and literate gaze” Robert Gardner transmits “with an intensity that passes from the documentary into the visionary” in his film Forest of Bliss. A decade and a half after its making, it is recognized as a contemporary classic of nonfiction cinema. Making Forest of Bliss, the first in Harvard Film Archive’s series “Voices and Visions in Film,” presents a dialogue between Gardner and his colleague anthropologist Akos Ostor, illustrated with more than 150 images captured from the film. Recalling the conditions of its filming in Benares, India, in 1985, and presenting their moment-by-moment impressions upon watching it several years later, Gardner and Ostor probe questions of what it means to capture life and death on film and ponder how the filmmaker’s intentions, choices necessitated by circumstance, and the serendipity of chance contribute to this endeavor. The resulting conversation is a lively exploration of issues philosophical, anthropological, and–above all–artistic. The volume contains an introduction by philosopher Stanley Cavell and includes a newly mastered DVD of the complete film.

The Story of Umaru Dikko


In 1967 Robert Gardner met and traveled with a Nigerian gentleman, Umaru Dikko, to Northern Nigeria. Dikko recorded sound and translated during this relatively short trip, during which the ritual beating Sharo was documented, and many years later he was involved in a most bizarre series of events. This little zine, published by The Holster, contains this story as told to Michael Hutcherson by Gardner.

“The Story of Umaru Dikko” was created as part of the second installment of Demand & Supply, a print-on-demand project first initiated for the NYC Zine Fest, and expanded upon for the NY Art Book Fairheld October 2-4, 2009 at P.S.1.

12 pages, 5 x 7 1/2, saddle stitched. Limited edition of 50 numbered copies, printed on demand by The Holster.