In a world of handheld digital photography, large-format, black-and-white images taken with an old Hasselblad camera are sure to give viewers pause. But that is not the only reason the 60 career-spanning portraits of indigenous peoples by award-winning photographer Dana Gluckstein at LIU Post's Steinberg Museum of Art command attention.
For museum director Barbara Applegate, the power of Gluckstein’s work — on view in the exhibit “Dignity: Tribes in Transition” — can be explained by concepts posited by French philosopher Roland Barthes. All photographs have “ ‘studium,’ or the facts,” Applegate explains, but what makes Gluckstein’s images truly affecting is “punctum,” a piercing detail enabling the viewer to have a direct relationship with its subject.
“It’s a little injury, like a pinprick that allows you to feel pain,” she says, pointing to “Chanter,” Gluckstein’s poignant 1996 portrayal of a bare-shouldered, laurel-crowned Native Hawaiian from a legendary “halau,” or traditional school. “The image is perfect, the proportions, the woman’s gaze, but it’s the tear rolling down her cheek that keeps us looking.”
To be sure, Gluckstein’s approach is “thoughtful, painterly, emotive,” as the photographer herself puts it, the approach of an artist and not a sociologist or anthropologist. Her tool of choice, an old-style camera, complements her vision. “It’s slower and more determined,” she explains. “The black-and-white film transcends reality, showing the soul and spirit of the individual.”
Having studied psychology and art as an undergraduate at Stanford, Gluckstein naturally gravitated to portraiture. Shooting images for the annual reports of Silicon Valley corporations in the early '80s, Gluckstein traveled to different parts of the world. A trip to Haiti, she says, marked the beginning of her “artistic quest,” launched with "Woman With Pipe," a shot of a native woman, her eyes engaging the viewer with intent while a wood pipe dangles from a corner of her mouth.
“I feel she is the beacon,” says the photographer of the image in relation to her 30 plus-year project. Honoring the more than 370 million indigenous people, her work sheds light on their struggle to preserve their heritage while dealing with the encroachment and disregard of modern global interests.
The portrait also graces the cover of her 2010 book “Dignity,” (a second edition will be out this spring), published in celebration of Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary. Photos such as one of a teenage girl who wears a traditional cape of the Campbell River Indian Band over her jeans and a regal Aboriginal woman resting her head in her hands are illustrative of Gluckstein’s desire to engage in creative activism. Growing up in a Jewish “tribe,” she says, engendered her strong affinity for other cultures and encouraged her to embrace the concept of “Tikkun Olam,” acts performed to help repair the world. “I want to make a difference,” she says.
According to Applegate, who has been witnessing community interest in Gluckstein’s show, which has been traveling to venues across the globe since 2011, she is. “Her works compel you to think,” she says, “to make moves, to make change.”
"DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition”
WHEN | WHERE 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9:30-8 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, through March 8, Steinberg Museum of Art, LIU Post, 720 Northern Blvd., Brookville
INFO Free; 516-299-4073, liu.edu