In 1983, Dana Gluckstein was in Puerto Rico on a commercial assignment to photograph factory workers for Quantum, a computer chip company based in the Bay Area. After finishing her work, she decided to go to Haiti for a week and photograph for herself. Little did she know that the Haiti trip was the beginning of a 30-year project making portraits of indigenous peoples in remote areas around the globe.
The first portraits for Gluckstein’s book DIGNITY: In Honor of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (powerHouse, 2010) were made in Haiti, including the cover photograph of a woman smoking a pipe. The book features over 90 beautifully printed black-andwhite portraits selected from her Tribes in Transition photographic project, which has grown to include an international travelling exhibition.
Gluckstein spent her childhood in Beverly Hills, where her extended Jewish family included her grandparents from Poland and both sets of great-grandparents. During high school, she was a para-counselor at the first Crisis Counseling Center in Los Angeles. This experience influenced her to major in psychology at Stanford University with a minor in art.
At the time, her primary art interest was painting, not photography. During her junior year in Florence, she fell in love with the light. Not yet owning a serious camera, she took photographs with an Instamatic. She went on to study photography at Stanford with Leo Holub. A friend of Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, Holub had built a darkroom in the basement of the university art gallery and founded the photography program in 1969. Gluckstein says that studying with Holub, Robert Parker and the other California artists teaching at Stanford in the 1970s shaped her vision and gave her a great foundation, which included learning how to look at light and how to interpret color into black-and-white.
Feeling that she was too impatient as a painter, after graduation in 1979, Gluckstein went home to Los Angeles to decide whether to become a photographer or attend graduate school in psychology. She wrote to the photographer Eve Arnold, seeking advice on her career dilemma. Arnold sent a typewritten reply before going into seclusion to edit her book on China, saying, “From an older photographer to a young one. Here is my recommendation: Learn your craft, find out what you want to say and then, say it.” Thirty-three years later, at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art exhibition Portrayal/Betrayal, Gluckstein’s photograph “Tribal Man in Transition” hung next to an Eve Arnold photograph taken in China.
Gluckstein decided to pursue a career in commercial photography in San Francisco. She describes the 1980s as a great time to be living there. There weren’t many women working in the photographic industry yet, and she learned strobe lighting on the job while assisting Bay Area photographers. A friend from Stanford, the associate art director at San Francisco magazine, hired her to photograph celebrities like Grace Slick for the monthly feature, “Persona.”
In 1981 Gluckstein bought a Hasselblad, which she still uses today. Silicon Valley was in its heyday, and she began shooting for annual reports even though she wasn’t familiar with that photographic style. She went in with her own eye and made intimate portraits. Her work won awards, which led to jobs in advertising.
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2014 issue.