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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Michael Rockefeller: In the Highlands of West Papua

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Michael Rockefeller
In the Highlands of West Papua

On a certain day in his senior year at Harvard, Michael agreed to do sound recording, an activity in which he had neither experience nor preparation, in order to be a member of the Harvard New Guinea expedition of 1961. Somehow, he managed to add to his hectic schedule a course of instruction that, in the end, gave both him and me confidence he had acquired a new skill.
The expeditionís purpose was to make a searching inquiry into the lives and circumstances of a small population of warrior farmers called Dani high in the central highlands of West Papua. The Dani were living authentic Stone Age lives in the Grand Valley of the Baliem River half way around the world from Cambridge Massachusetts.
Together with Michael, other participants in this inquiry included: Peter Matthiessen for his achievements in both Natural History and the art of the novel, Karl Heider for his training in Anthropology and wide experience in other cultures, Eliot Elisofon for his long career in photography, Jan Broekhuyse for his knowledge of local languages, and Samuel Putnam for his photographic interests. I went to make a film and take responsibility for coordinating this promising venture.
Michael was engaged almost every day from April 4th until August 31st 1961 recording sounds and making photographs. Those are the dates when he entered and finally left the Daniís highland realm to continue his exploration of art and society on the shores of what turned out to be an unforgiving Arafoera Sea.
There was never a question that Michael would, sometimes simultaneously, do both sound recording which was his duty and photography which was his passion. Neither one overwhelmed the other but each required a person of enormous, at times grim, determination. In both tasks, Michael served with distinction. In fact, it can be said that his photography rises to a level he himself could never have imagined, given his modesty and what would turn out to be his failing grace, relentless curiosity.
Robert Gardner (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006) 



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