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A reflection on Robert Lowell

by Robert Gardner

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.


Robert Gardner has made several feature nonfiction films, including Dead Birds, Rivers of Sand, and Forest of Bliss, all on the Library of Congress list of most important American films. He also has hosted nearly a hundred television programs on independent filmmaking. Gardner has written several books, including The Impulse to Preserve: Reflections of a Filmmaker and Making Dead Birds: Chronicle of a Film. The winner of numerous film prizes, including the Flaherty Award twice, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 by the American Anthropological Association. More recently he founded Studio7Arts, a cooperative art making endeavor. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (updated 4/2012)

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