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Published: Sun Apr 15 2012
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
On Lowell

I believe the first printing of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies was in 1959. This was when I could scarcely consider myself a photographer and yet Lowell was generous enough to ask me to take some pictures for the dust jacket. I remember the day as lit with autumnal light, quite perfect for both interiors and exteriors.

I think there are approximately 150 photographs that I made with either a Rolleiflex or more likely the less expensive but similar Ciro-flex. I know this because the negatives are almost square (21/4 by 21/4 inches), which is ideal for capturing detail in fine definition. What I don’t know is why I was walking around with a dozen rolls of film in my pockets looking down into the viewfinder, but I am glad I was.

I began to photograph in the house in which he lived on Marlborough Street with his wife Elizabeth Hardwick and their daughter Harriet. From there we went outside to explore the immediate neighborhood of Boston Common. Of special interest was Saint-Gaudens’s huge relief depicting the Massachusetts regiment of black troops led by Robert Gould Shaw. He might have been thinking about his friend Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

And then, out came Life Studies to much excitement over what came to be called “confessional” poetry. I was a graduate student soon to abandon my studies to visit the fastnesses of New Guinea, where I pursued the phenomenon of ritual warfare in a place as far from Marlborough Street as one can go.

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Robert Gardner (1925–2014) was the maker of many documentary and ethnographic films, among them Dead Birds, Rivers of Sand, and Forest of Bliss, which the Library of Congress have included in their list of most important American films. Gardner’s films took him to Netherlands New Guinea (now Indonesia), Ethiopia, Nigeria, India, and Spain. Gardner studied art history as an undergraduate at Harvard University, and as a graduate student, he was the first to teach courses there on the subject of film. In 1957 he founded Harvard’s Film Study Center and was its director for forty years. In 1979 he co-founded the Harvard Film Archive. He also produced and hosted “The Screening Room,” a series of nearly a hundred ninety-minute television programs on independent filmmaking and, more recently, founded the small cooperative art making endeavor Studio7Arts. Gardner wrote several books, including The Impulse to Preserve: Reflections of a Filmmaker and Making Dead Birds: Chronicle of a Film. He also won numerous film prizes, including the Flaherty Award twice, and in 2005 he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Anthropological Association.

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