What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney
Margaret Sartor, Ed.
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Friday, June 2 2000, 9:05 PM
When Bill Gedney died of AIDS in 1989, he was a photographer known to only a few. Gedney's talent as an unobtrusive observer emerged from a predisposition that concealed his own life as much as it facilitated his photography. As a photographer, Gedney was the Cavafy to Brooklyn's Myrtle Avenue, with a local eye that distinguished its place, possibilities and lives. He brought that same combination of acuteness and unobtrusiveness into a photographic series on Kentucky, San Francisco and India, the three locales outside Brooklyn where he did his most noted work.
During his fifty-six years of life, Gedney had only one solo exhibition, as a young photographer at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1968. A new exhibition of his work that accompanies this book was recently staged at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and relied heavily on the work of friends determined to celebrate Gedney's largely unknown artistic accomplishments. Duke University's special collections library now houses the materials on which the exhibition and book are based. Fortunate are those with such dedicated friends.
Gedney had an almost preternatural instinct for composition. Lines and forms found fine alignments and oppositions in his photographs, a task that appears effortless but which requires a trained eye and long practice. A 1967 photograph of a long Chevrolet parked in front of two neo-Grecian entryways in San Francisco opposes lengthy dark shadows on the car against the rising white columns of the house doors; a newer order provides a foundation for an older order. A 1969 shot of a near-deserted Brooklyn street in the evening balances an astonishingly complex interplay of light and dark, yet does so with a strong, simple and central focal point. Night streets attracted Gedney and, whether in Brooklyn or Benares, he found them a stage for his meditative aesthetics. Another 1975 night photograph taken on the streets of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania shows a mattress advertisement painted on a brick wall with an invisible streetlamp overhead it and the street foreground. The eye wanders off down the dark street with the picture, towards the next street corner and its patch of illumination.
Gedney writes that he is not a 'social photographer,' but this is more a foreswearing of conscientious pursuit of the Jakob Riis documentary tradition than a viable characterization of his own images. In distancing himself from that emphasis on message-laden photographic images of the poor, Gedney emphasizes instead his so-quiet presence among his fellow creatures. The best moments he captures, although often set in poverty, are those of intimacy and grace. One of the most marvelous photographs here, reproduced on the dustcover, is of three young girls each standing on one leg while talking in a kitchen. The kitchen has a low ceiling and is noticeably poor, but no matter: the girls appear as cranes, poised for flight. It is not that poverty is absent, but rather Gedney brings out the presence of airs of lightness and even nobility that infiltrate these terms of daily existence. While his camera captures the social environment, Gedney's truer focus is on the instant and its human face.
In 1964 and 1972, Gedney traveled to the Blue Diamond Mining Camp in eastern Kentucky for brief stays with Willie and Vivian Cornett, a couple with twelve children and a miserable income. His work during these brief weeks manifests an enchanted realism. The lean and hard look of the menfolk, forever working on the junked cars that litter the yards, locates their lives on the register of the American class system.
A car engine and open hood become the social center of lives that have little other material recompense awaiting them. Not only men in their twenties work on car innards, but young teens and boys are working alongside them. The hood of a Buick becomes a social lounge and various photographs instance how car bodies serve human bodies for comfort. As a man reposing atop a car reaches out to hand a friend a cigarette, a viewer joins their company as an unseen third. Gedney's capacity to join the sociality of such moments, repeated without awkwardness or pose across many photographs, distinguishes these two Kentucky series.
It says a great deal for Gedney's quiet personal attractiveness and integrity that he developed a continuing relationship with the Cornett family over the years in correspondence that the book reproduces. The two Kentucky series clearly depend on his own acceptance and ability to blend into a social scenery very far from his accustomed world.
In 1966 Gedney received a Guggenheim fellowship, part of which he spent following a group of hippies as they did apartment squats in San Francisco. Guitars, love beads, couples huddling, flutes, and Allen Ginsberg wearing that Uncle Sam hat. Hippiedom in full flower. Gedney's notebooks record how he attempted to assemble his photo book dummy into a coherent narrative, one that captured both the externalities and internalities of this freeform band throughout their day. Vacancy, boredom and a need for company haunt these photographs. The mythic structure of change and re-establishment within which Gedney attempted to envision these pictures seems ultimately much less compelling than the sheer vacancy of lives within these images.
Diaries and personal manuscripts provide a rich source for estimating Gedney's interior world. His style tends towards the telegraphic and often enigmatic, but the interplay of images and text creates a sense of visual and mental authorship for the volume. Where the idea sometimes remains lodged within only a brief phrase or quotation, Gedney's tone is more expansive than his words. During a fourteen-month stay in Benares, where the press of human population emerges far more strongly than in his previous photographic work, Gedney writes "Color dashes in front of you, each street is a tunnel of movement, of frenzy. The vision is exhausting, the masses of Asia weigh down on you, you see too much, your eyes want rest." The tone of his work from two lengthy stays in India is dominated by this visual excitement, by bodies crowding at the edges of the photograph's frame.
In one of the quote passages from his journals, Gedney cites Bartok: "What matters most of all, is to penetrate into the pulsing life of the people themselves, to become imbued with their way of living, and to see their faces when they sing at their weddings, harvests and funerals֦amp;quot; To pursue this pulsing life through the work of art, Bartok suggests, is to convey an abstract essence that will animate the life of the artist. That folk romanticism of which Bartok spoke and believed characterizes Gedney's artistic life too, which his act of citation recognizes. At a certain point, relatively early in his career, Gedney ceased searching for public recognition, shows and books. Perhaps this was a personal expression of that same folk romanticism, and of a quietly ethical self-identification with the anonymity of his public subjects.
What Was True is a Lyndhurst Book, published by the Center for Documentary Studies in association with W.W. Norton and Co.