Profile Feature of SMFA & Tufts University Photography Professor
Red flannel shirt and black leggings, chunky scarf and thin frames, Macbook and a coffee-stained Starbucks cup: Dore Gardner is ready for class. “I don’t even know what being sixty-six years old means,” she says wondrously. Dore plays with her hair and looks away in an attempt to hide a smile.
A professor at Tufts University, Dore Gardner keeps the aged art of black and white film photography alive, under the dim red glow of the darkroom. Controlling exposure, understanding composition and experimenting with focus, students who study finance or biology learn to develop artistic style. To demonstrate what she calls “visual intelligence,” Dore presents the work of notable photographers. As the slides of the vintage projector rotate, each ch-chk casts a new photograph in front of them. In a few leisurely minutes, Dore exposes each image through her opinions and insight. After various pauses, she concludes by exclaiming; “It’s wonderful,” and repeats in a higher pitch, “…wonderful!” Ch-chk. “Ahh…just so beautiful.” Ch-chk.
As architecture student Sarah Long says, “She reads a story.”
Yet, it is the stories and conversations tucked in between the photo critiques that turn her students into friends. “Be creative and surprise yourself,” Dore often says – an artist who has spent her whole life surprising herself.
Dore studied painting and drawing at Ohio State University, graduating in 1969. The young artist left her home state to pursue graduate studies in fine arts at the Massachusetts College of Art. Photography triumphed only later in her adult life, when she began travelling over the summers. From Egypt to Greece, Dore would return with photos that thrilled audiences. “I could really explore the world and be there,” she says. When the only tangible barrier in front of an artist is a camera lens, the photographer becomes part of the subject.
On a rain-soaked Cambridge evening in 1986, Dore rushed indoors to find herself at a film screening. A documentary had just begun, chronicling the life and legacy of Mexican folk healer, el Niño Fidencio. The “sainted” man performed miracles with medicines from herbs and plants. Without anesthesia, he would remove tumors using specially chosen pieces of broken glass. In 1928, el Niño cured President Calles of a serious skin ailment, bringing him nation-wide popularity. Dore was only introduced to this story that rainy evening, but she returned the following day.
Watching the documentary, she stared at the face of a man whose gaze she found “distant yet compassionate, oddly comforting, even familiar.” She had previously only photographed healing practices taking place in the charismatic churches of Massachusetts and Georgia. The priest would touch believers, and the divine spirit would collapse their bodies to the floor. Fascinated by people’s faith and absorbed by el Niño’s story, she “wanted to go there.”
Between 1986 and 1991, Dore made regular trips to Mexico, trekking southwest to Espinoza. Certain devotees of el Niño act as materias, or mediums that channel his spirit to perform healing practices. They are chosen by el Niño himself, who communicates through dreams, or during a state of trance. Throughout the five years, miles apart, these materias welcomed Dore on behalf of el Niño. Even with his humility, el Niño understood the power of photographs as testimonies. Through visual representation, his miracles can be documented and the several thousand photos Dore collected during her trips did just that.
Among them, one female materia’s spiritual trance is captured in black and white. Under stormy skies, she stands on the hood of a rusty car with windows embellished by cracks. Caked with dirt, her bare feet poke out from underneath her tunic disturbed by sweeping winds. Her arms stretched wide into open palms, she smiles wildly with an open mouth and closed eyes.
In these photos, characters – men and women, young and old – all enliven the gritty tones that spell out these miracles of faith. Shrines with candles, flowers and wooden crosses enchant, sacred water glistens, and the sprawling mountains of northern Mexico set the backdrop. The photos seem to have slipped out of a García Márquez novel, as sincere as they are surreal.
“Strange little things happened that made me what to go back,” Dore laughs.
Camera in hand, Dore followed some materias five miles outside of Espinoza. The sun beat down on the rugged terrain, and she grew restless under the pressure of heat and exhaustion. A materia approached Dore with the message that Bertha is watching over her. Upon hearing the first mention of her dead grandmother’s name, Dore dropped her camera. During another trip to Mexico, Dore’s photojournalist friend, Chris accompanied her and wanted to publish some photos he had taken in a magazine. Dore asked him not to and when he did, they were lost in the mail.
In 1992, Dore published a book about el Niño, which the New York Times deemed “a testament to the power of belief.” Once Dore’s student, Justin McCallum brought a copy to his last few classes to ask for an autograph, but never did. “It felt too strange,” he explained, “she was more than just this artist to me.”
As an artist or a friend, Dore continues to surprise herself. Regarding her choice to shoot in black and white she once explained, “It’s because everybody knows what the world looks like in color.” Reminded of her comment, Dore jumped in her chair. “I said that?”
She scribbled it down to share with her friends.
Nino Fidencio: A Heart Thrown Open. See more.