“It is apparent that only a certain kind of person will want to make ethnographic films. It will, above all, be those who sense the profound affinity that exists between the film medium and a desire to understand people.” —Robert Gardner
Robert Gardner was a certain extraordinary kind of person. His desire to understand people inspired not only his own work in film, in writing, in traveling the world, but also the work of generations of filmmakers and photographers, writers and artists, anthropologists and explorers. His generosity to those who shared his passion was profound.
Robert Gardner died in Boston on the summer solstice, June 21, 2014. An award-winning nonfiction filmmaker and author and a lifelong friend and supporter of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Gardner was an undergraduate and graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard, a participant in the Marshall family’s filmmaking expedition to the Kalahari, and the founder of the Film Study Center at Harvard, which began in the basement of the Peabody. He headed up the Harvard Peabody–New Guinea Expedition (1961–1963) that resulted in the film Dead Birds and the book Gardens of War; among his collaborators on that now-legendary project were Michael Rockefeller, Peter Matthiessen, Karl Heider, and Eliot Elisofon. Gardner served as founding director of Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and later formed the creative photography collective Studio7Arts.
In 2006 Gardner established the influential Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography at the Peabody, whose mission is to support an “established practitioner of the photographic arts to create and subsequently publish through the Peabody Museum a major book of photographs on the human condition anywhere in the world.” Artists who have received the fellowship are Guy Tillim (Avenue Patrice Lumumba, 2008), Dayanita Singh (House of Love, 2010), Alessandra Sanguinetti, Stephen Dupont (Piksa Niugini, 2013), Miki Kratsman (Resolution of the Suspect, forthcoming), Yto Barrada, and Chloe Dewe Mathews. Gardner also sponsored two Gardner Visiting Artist Fellows: Samina Quraeshi (Sacred Spaces: A Journey with the Sufis of the Indus, 2009) and Kevin Bubriski. Bubriski’s book Nepal: 1975–2011 was just published by the museum and an exhibition of that work—Shadows of Shangri La—is currently on view at the Center for Government and International Studies, co-sponsored by the Harvard Asia Center and the Peabody Museum.
Robert Gardner’s contributions to Harvard and the Peabody Museum were profound. A towering presence, a giant in the fields of anthropology and film, and a beloved friend of the Peabody, Gardner will be sorely missed by a multitude of students, friends, colleagues, and collaborators. His own creative works, and the work he has supported, will endure and continue to inspire.
New York Times Obituary