Saturday June 21st was a very sad day… a very sad day indeed as we said goodbye to a brilliant, great man, the father of my husband. Robert Gardner left us as we were holding his hands, his last breath into the sunset overlooking the Charles River.
I very quietly looked at life though his lens, slowly developing a passion for African art, traveling the world with my then young children to show them the bare essentials in life, to introduce them to cultures so foreign to us.
My children as we did, had a quiet moment to say goodbye to their grand father, a forbidding figure at times, but a proof that one can live a full life, a life of one's choosing.
Robert Gardner, an intrepid filmmaker who specialized in anthropological documentaries, examining lives in remote societies around the globe, died on June 21 in Boston. He was 88.
The cause was cardiac failure, his wife, Dr. Adele Pressman, said.
Mr. Gardner, who had been a student of art history at Harvard, began making films in the early 1950s after visiting Turkey with the archaeologist and scholar Thomas Whittemore and starting graduate school in anthropology at the University of Washington.
His work, known for its sophisticated visual language and sparse narration, unveiled ethnographically distinctive peoples and practices with patience and a kind of objective astonishment.
“For much of a career that has spanned more than a half-century and circumnavigated the globe,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times in 2011, on the occasion of a partial retrospective of his work at Film Forum in Manhattan, “Mr. Gardner has trained the camera on people whose lives, rituals, beliefs and bodily ornamentation can seem so far from early-21st-century Western life as to be from another galaxy.”
His first important feature-length film, “Dead Birds,” arose from a 1961 trip he made to what was then Netherlands New Guinea (now part of Indonesia), where he observed the rituals of a prehistoric highlands people known as the Dani, whose traditions, values and quotidian practices were largely based on, in Mr. Gardner’s words, “an elaborate system of intertribal warfare and revenge.”
The expedition included 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller, son of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York, who later that year disappeared after traveling to another part of New Guinea. Mr. Gardner accompanied the governor in what turned out to be a fruitless search for his son, whose body was never found.
Among the admirers of the film, released in 1964, were the poet Robert Lowell (Mr. Gardner’s cousin) and the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Ms. Dargis called it “a landmark in the field” and “a document, a time capsule, about a society on the edge, both in terms of the marginalization of its population and the material changes that will come with the shrinking world.”
Mr. Gardner’s 1974 film, “Rivers of Sand,” depicted the Hamer people of Ethiopia, whose society is baldly and cruelly male-dominated.
“In their isolation, they seemed to have refined this not uncommon principle of social organization into a remarkably pure state,” Mr. Gardner wrote. “Hamer men are masters and their women are slaves. The film tries to disclose the effect on mood and behavior of lives governed by the idea of sexual inequality.”
Mr. Gardner’s other films include “Deep Hearts” (1981), about a nomadic tribe in central Africa (he filmed the tribe in the Niger Republic) with complex rituals related to human beauty; and “Forest of Bliss” (1986), which takes place in Benares (now Varanasi), India, the city on the banks of the Ganges, held sacred by the Hindus, where many go to cremate their dead. That film depicts daily life as something of an unexplained mystery, unspooling from sunrise to sunrise without narration or dialogue.
“What is that grizzled, bare-chested master of ceremony, aglow in the flames, up to — holding fire in his palm and sprinkling bits of it about, croaking what must be some sort of prayer?” Walter Goodman wrote in his review in The Times. “What do all those chants and ritualized movements and bright colors signify? To what fate are these dead being consigned? Can it be legal, not to mention sanitary, to plop the corpses into the river?
“You will not find the answers here to such questions,” Mr. Goodman continued. “But the pictures are so strong, the vision so sustained that mundane curiosity seems almost irreverent. ‘Forest of Bliss’ itself is a kind of ceremony.”
Robert Grosvenor Gardner was born into a socially prominent family in Brookline, Mass., on Nov. 5, 1925. His father, George Peabody Gardner, was a banker and financier and a descendant of the arts patrons and philanthropists John Lowell Gardner and Isabella Stewart Gardner. His mother, Rose Phinney Grosvenor, was the daughter of a textiles magnate.
He attended the Park School in Brookline and St. Mark’s School, in Southborough, Mass., before graduating from Harvard. After traveling to Turkey with Mr. Whittemore, an expert in Byzantine art and architecture, Mr. Gardner taught briefly at the College of Puget Sound in Tacoma (now the University of Puget Sound). He enrolled in but did not complete a graduate program in anthropology at the University of Washington, where he made a short film, “Blunden Harbor,” about the Kwakiutl Indians, from a coastal village on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Invited to take pictures and conduct research on an expedition in the Kalahari desert in Africa, he then returned to Massachusetts and helped start a film production and research unit at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. This became the Film Study Center, which he directed from 1957 to 1997. The Peabody Museum sponsored the New Guinea expedition in 1961.
Mr. Gardner’s books include “Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age,” written with Karl G. Heider, and “Making ‘Forest of Bliss’: Intention, Circumstance and Chance in Nonfiction Film,” with Akos Ostor. Through much of the 1970s, Mr. Gardner was the host of “Screening Room,” a television series devoted to interviews with independent filmmakers, on WCVB in Boston.
Mr. Gardner’s first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to Dr. Pressman, a psychiatrist, whom he married in 1983, he is survived by a brother, Jack; a sister, Rosie Cutler; a daughter, Eve Gardner; four sons, Stewart, Luke, Caleb and Noah; and six grandchildren.
My favorite photograph on our library's wall taken by Robert in the Baliam Valley in New Guinea