Sometimes numbers provide the best grasp of world history, of its sporadic progress and its frequent failures to move ahead. For example, World War II caused an estimated 60 million deaths, which is thought to be the greatest loss of life due to a single cause in world history. That statistic lends perspective to this one: across the globe today, refugees—stateless individuals and families—are believed to number almost three-fourths that many: approximately 44 million displaced and homeless souls.
Then again, many of us would rather regard such events from another perspective: perhaps through the lens of art. Enter Kenneth Hartvigsen, a fixture at BYU’s Museum of Art whose recent elevation to Curator of American Art permitted him to accomplish a long-term goal, which was to make a professional contribution to alleviating some portion of the suffering of today’s refugees. And so he has gathered three simultaneous exhibitions, each encouraging awareness and inviting participation in a solution, each unique in its approach, yet all interconnected like the galleries they share. Together, all three are worth seeing, while each deserves individual contemplation.
Of the three, Dana Gluckstein’s DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition offers the largest and most comprehensive examination of the refugees’ plight. Her photographs record encounters with indigenous populations in apparently every ecological, social, political, and economic niche they currently inhabit. She’s able to present such a comprehensive portrait in part because she’s been at it so long—since the 1980s, when she began taking time away from a career in advertising to focus on advocacy for the displaced. Additionally, hers is a wider perspective, not narrowly focused on international refugees, or the larger question of displaced populations, but contemplating indigenous peoples everywhere as a large, troublesome, and troubling fact of modern life. Finally, unlike many forces acting on the world’s tribal peoples, refugees, and political outcasts, she has no agenda, no preexisting vision of her own. Faced with a population in transition, she accepts that they must make their own decisions if those choices are to work for them, and the solutions last. Of the few countries and organizations that take a genuine interest in Gluckstein’s subjects, many do so on the condition that marginal groups must either remain on the fringe of the modern world, or assimilate into its Western-style, industrialized anonymity. Instead of advocacy for one or the other, or any vision of hers, Gluckstein lets her subjects tell their own stories and make their own arguments.
Because she approaches her subjects directly and without projecting her desires or judgments onto them, her photography includes some of the most revealing portraits of any artist working today. At the same time, it must be said that her images, at first sight, are also among the most conventional, achieving their power not through any individual artistic vision, but rather through her sheer persistence during 30 years of self-effacing hard work. In fact, her work is, in a sense, the least obviously artistic imagery in the entire Museum of Art, a fact due in part to an irony in the history of photography. The recent rise of digital media and the earlier unconventional uses of traditional techniques, like “performance” and “installation,” have desensitized the audience to the relative novelty of mechanical image-making. Yet photography is not yet 180 years old, and in spite of its invention by painters and early use as an illustrator’s tool, its acceptance as an art in itself did not occur until around a century ago. The irony lies in the fact that, after 50 years of attempts to make it look like painting, it was the advent of “straight” photography in the works of Alfred Stieglitz and the f-64 Group that brought about its acceptance. Yet their principles, which rejected tampering with the subject or fundamentally manipulating the resulting image, are associated today less with art and more with journalism, documentaries, and science.
All three of those terms could describe Dana Gluckstein’s life’s work, and all three fields do sometimes produce works of art. But how? How do documents that remain objectively and accurately detailed acquire the power to produce an emotional response? What makes these African husbands in snazzy Western clothing, and their wives, who wear Victorian dresses to herd cattle, or the dancers who live in 2018 while performing in the timeless past, seem so instantly familiar, so recognizably a part of our human family? And why, when a viewer comes close enough to the figure of a singing Polynesian woman to see the tear running down her face, do that viewer’s eyes tear up in response?
If what initially drew Dana Gluckstein to photography were its powers of persuasion, which have made it, after all, the primary tool of advertising, what she seems to have discovered, what was more important once she got there, is the camera’s ability to fix whatever is ephemeral in a permanent form. While the connection between art and the artist’s biography is never simple or direct, it seems reasonable to trace her clarity of vision, her remarkable sympathy to her early exposure to stories shared with her by her parents. As the child of a Jewish family growing up in the decades after the Holocaust, she must have absorbed the lesson that not just individuals, but entire families and even cultures can disappear in a historical instant. This knowledge may have primed her, lying dormant in her awareness until the moment in the 1980s when she wandered into Haiti and discovered the poverty and oppression of one of the world’s most unfortunate populations. Once exposed in her own life to a level of powerlessness few in the vastly better-off First World can even imagine, it became possible to envision how something as unlikely as a camera could become a tool of tremendous power: one capable of transcending the alienation and isolation that have prevented so many indigenous people from establishing functional communities of their own.
By focusing on individual encounters, Gluckstein is able to simultaneously depict both the environment that adversely affects her subjects and the power of each individual’s response. Thus each portrait does the work of multiple images. Comparing her work to some famous predecessors, the contrast is revealing. Where she allows her subjects to determine their own self-presentation, many early photographers, having arrived too late to capture complete innocence, strove to doctor what was presented to their cameras in pursuit of an idealized image. In representing numerous American Indians, one of her famous predecessors, Edward Sheriff Curtis, removed evidence of alien intrusions like machine-made clothing and mechanical accoutrements that would have spoiled their romantic images, thereby concealing their precise location on the sliding scale of adaptation. Gluckstein never asks her subjects to lie to or hide their small accomplishments from her camera, and they reward her with candid, intimate, and undeniable self-presentation. A T-shirt or an outboard motor becomes a measure of progress as well as loss. The difference between what pre-machine age men and women have adopted or retained speaks volumes about their relative status, even as it reveals the timeless, continuing struggle over who does the work and who reaps the rewards.
In an example that reverses the equation, the popular fashion photographer Irving Penn traveled widely, often making time to seek out extreme examples of human diversity: the more exotic, the better. To emphasize his vision of human diversity, Penn carried a tent with him, within which he could pose his subjects like freaks in a specimen jar: dolls removed from their cultural context. His exaggerated studies contrast with Gluckstein’s context-rich depictions. One man excised his subject’s individual adaptation; the other stripped his of context.
At BYU MOA, Hartvigsen chose to hang Gluckstein’s photos without regard to date or location, but shuffled together to emphasize their unity of content and expression. While resistance, survival, accommodation, and triumph can be discerned throughout the result, what also comes across is the remarkable, self-effacing discipline Dana Gluckstein has demonstrated throughout her career. What also is evident is what she meant to emphasize most: the presence of elders, performing artists, and other living vessels of culture everywhere among her subjects. Here she reveals her belief in the power of social continuity. The survival of the world’s indigenous populations is important to them, yes, but beyond that she finds in them the evidence, so often lacking in so-called advanced societies, of extraordinary vitality lodged and rooted in common humanity.
Dana Gluckstein – DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, through Sept. 29.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.