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).