Michael Rockefeller: New Guinea Photographs, 1961

Boys practicing to become warriors.


Michael Rockefeller: New Guinea Photographs, 1961

From March to August 1961, Michael Rockefeller, a 1960 Harvard graduate, was sound recordist and still photographer on a remarkable multidisciplinary expedition to the Grand Valley Dani of Irian Jaya, Indonesia (formerly Netherlands New Guinea). Organized by filmmaker Robert Gardner, the Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition included anthropologists Karl G. Heider and Jan Broekhuijse, photographer Eliot Elisofon, medical student Sam Putnam, and naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen.

The undertaking was extraordinarily fruitful. These Grand Valley Dani had relatively little contact beyond their valley, producing almost all their own necessities of life while practicing "ritual warfare." The expedition lived with and documented these isolated people.

Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition, 1961
Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition, 1961. From L-R: Karl Heider, Michael Rockefeller, Peter Matthiessen, Eliot Elisofon, Jan Broekhuijse, Rober Gardner, and Wali. Photo by Eliot Elisofon, PM 2006.

The expedition eventually produced Robert Gardner's feature-length film Dead Birds, Matthiessen's nonfiction book Under the Mountain Wall, two doctoral dissertations, and a book of photographs, Gardens of War, with text by Gardner and Heider.

This exhibition presents a selection of Rockefeller's photographs from the Harvard-Peabody New Guinea Expedition chosen from more than four thousand black-and-white negatives, now housed in the Peabody's collection. Although a few of these photos were published in Gardens of War, from whose text we quote here, the majority of them have never been publicly exhibited. They capture not only the resilient spirit of the Dani people but also the anthropological and artistic eye of a young man full of promise and curiosity.

This exhibition was originally curated by Kevin Bubriski and mounted in the Peabody Museum in 2006.

All images, except where noted, are by Michael Clark Rockefeller. Gift of the Family of Michael C. Rockefeller.