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Michael Rockefeller among the Dani, 1961
Michael Rockefeller among the Dani, 1961, in a photograph which is part of Harvard's exhibition. (Jan Broekhuijse)

Documenting the dynamic moment

Michael Rockefeller's pictures record New Guinea tribesmen beautifully

CAMBRIDGE -- Michael Rockefeller was the youngest son of Nelson Rockefeller's first marriage. He graduated from Harvard in 1960, during the first of his father's four terms as governor of New York. A year later he died, on the second of two anthropological expeditions to New Guinea, when his catamaran capsized. In honor of his son's memory, Nelson Rockefeller later underwrote what is now the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is devoted to the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

"Michael Rockefeller: New Guinea Photographs, 1961," which runs at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology through Feb. 27, looks at the first New Guinea expedition. It was a remarkable gathering of creative minds. Heading it was the documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner. His best-known film, "Dead Birds ," grew out of the expedition. Also present were novelist Peter Matthiessen and photographer Eliot Elisofon .

The exhibition comprises some 40 black-and-white photographs Rockefeller took, drawn from a total of about 3,500, of life among the Dani , a neolithic tribe. (The Rockefeller pictures, as well as the rest taken by the expedition, are part of the archive of the Film Study Center, which Gardner headed for four decades.) Rockefeller, who had been a history major as an undergraduate, had no background as a professional photographer. In fact, his primary responsibility wasn't visual: He was assigned the task of being the expedition's sound recordist .

Even so, his pictures are very good. It certainly helps that such a small percentage of the photographs he took are on display. But the exhibition includes a contact sheet, and the quality of its images indicates the rest of the show is no greatest-hits selection. Clearly, Rockefeller had an eye for composition and, what's far more unusual, a feel for the dynamic moment. He never posed his subjects. He didn't have to. There's one picture here, of a warrior caught from afar in exultant leap, that's so perfectly timed it looks almost comic.

The visual quality of the images makes it easy to forget that content mattered far more to Rockefeller than form did. Purely photographic considerations never obscured for him the defining documentary impulse of the larger enterprise. He was there to record not express. "Photography like other artistic mediums requires a very particular combination of talents," Rockefeller wrote in a journal he kept during the expedition, "and I now know that an eye sensitive to aesthetics by itself assures little."

What's most impressive about Rockefeller's pictures is how he managed to strike a balance between reserve (the photographer never tried to be anything other than an outsider) and immediacy (just as clearly, he presented his subjects with vividness and sympathy). One way he maintained his apartness is so obvious as to be easily overlooked: Almost none of the photographs was taken up close. The rare exception, like "Childhood friends," retains an innate gravity that carries its own sense of distance.

All of the expedition members had cameras. "There was a near din of clacking shutters every day," Gardner later wrote. "We each had other duties, but no one could escape the photographic mania."

Perhaps this accounts for the wondrous unself-consciousness the Dani show toward the camera. These strange rectangular objects around their necks were such a constant among the outsiders that they must have seemed like a talisman of their distant culture -- a bulkier form of necklace, say -- and thus unworthy of notice. Or maybe there was just something about Rockefeller's manner.

A scion of vast wealth and power, he encountered in the Dani a world of experience almost incomprehensibly alien to his own. Rockefeller lacked graduate work in anthroplogy. Yet something underlies the unmistakable excitement of discovery that fills these images: an equally unmistakable sense of connection.

The two old men gathering food in "An offering of sweet potatoes" engage in a universally human undertaking. The young warrior in "Removing an embedded arrow" displays a martial stoicism worthy of honor (and envy) on any battlefield. Rockefeller presented his subjects neither as noble savages worthy of reflexive veneration nor ignoble primitives deserving of equally reflexive condescension. They were human beings, as worthy of awe, and indifference, as you, me, or the richest man in America.

The occasion for the Rockefeller show is the 40th anniversary of the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship. The fellowship, which was endowed to honor its namesake's memory, annually provides a stipend for five recent Harvard graduates to spend a year abroad experiencing a foreign culture in a non-academic setting. The exhibition acknowledges the connection with the installation of a video monitor that shows images from Rockefeller fellows' experiences in a wide variety of countries: India, Poland, Ghana, Sri Lanka, and so on.

The show and anniversary aren't the only reason the Rockefeller Fellowship is in the news. It's about to extend its reach to a very foreign culture, indeed, that of Beacon Hill. One of the 1978-79 fellows (he lived in Sudan and Nigeria) was named Deval Patrick .

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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