Reviewed by Mark Feeney, Boston Globe staff | Dec. 10, 2006
... 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.
Photo caption: Michael Rockefeller among the Dani, 1961, in a photograph which is part of Harvard's exhibition. (Jan Broekhuijse)