Sometimes I think if I see one more photograph described as “eloquent,” I will just run in the opposite direction. Fortunately, I had seen some of William Gedney’s photographs before I read that description of them, so I did go to see the new exhibition of his work at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). The pictures are warm, attentive and rewarding. Unlike some art photography, in which unindividuated persons appear in generic locales, these are precise studies of particular people in particular places. Gedney seems to have liked people, and to have found beauty in unlikely places.
William Gedney was born in 1932, and died in 1989. He spent his adult life in Brooklyn, supporting his creative work by teaching at the Cooper Union, and at Pratt Institute, his alma mater, where he had first learned photography. Although he won major grants (Guggenheim, Fulbright, NEA) and completed several extensive series of works, he had only one solo exhibition during his lifetime–but it was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. When Gedney died, he left his vast, meticulously maintained archive of photographs, negatives and notebooks to fellow photographer Lee Friedlander. Friedlander and Gedney’s brother Richard donated all of William Gedney’s materials to the Duke University Special Collections Library. Durham photographer Margaret Sartor and co-editor Geoff Dyer mined this trove for their book What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney and Sandra Phillips used the archive to organize Short Distances and Definite Places, which premiered last year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The version of the exhibition currently at CDS was curated by Margaret Sartor, and it includes a number of Gedney’s notebooks as well as photos from four of his major series.
The photographs are about people and their intrinsic beauty, and all the things Gedney found interesting in the world, things like a sleek elongated automobile parked perfectly centered between the two columned doorways of mirror-image rowhouses. These works are not “about” light, but Gedney is so sensitive to the light that it does become part of the subject matter. One of the most striking examples of this is “Henry Weinberg, July 7, 1967.” In it a man sits at a desk before a window, writing music. Light falls across the piles of lined manuscript paper in such a way that you can almost feel its dry texture on your fingertips, but the light also hits the sharpened pencils so that they gleam like mercury. Outside the window, far below, a jumble of identically formed apartment buildings angle away into the hazy distance.
Weinberg seems completely oblivious to the photographer, enclosed as he is in his private world, as do the couple in “Chicago, 1966.” Here we see a couple kissing against a jukebox (“3 plays 20¢”). The man is in a black leather jacket, pressing his partner up against the jukebox, a comb protruding from his back pocket. All we can see of her is her white neck and the polished fingernails of her hand as it rests on his collar. Above their heads, a portrait of Bob Dylan, torn from a magazine, is tacked high on the wall.
A long series shows young hippies, flower children and war protesters in San Francisco in the late 1960s. One odd thing about this group is how current it looks, although the pictures were made more than 30 years ago. It’s the clothes–the original versions of today’s cleaned up hippie chic and retro cool. Except that everything was much dirtier then. In one picture, a dark-haired young man in a filthy sweatshirt and torn jacket sports a flower above a button declaring him to be a “Prisoner of War.” The flower is about the only clean thing in any of these pictures. The grubbiness of it all, and the apparent unhappiness of the people, cannot fail to strike the viewer.
In 1964, and again in 1972, Gedney stayed with and photographed a family in the Kentucky hills. These photos of poor Southern country people feature girls barefoot in the kitchen and shirtless boys working on cars. But Gedney somehow got beyond the clichés of documentary photography and reached the people themselves. He must have been a very sympathetic, unobtrusive presence, to get pictures like these. The men have that completely unselfconscious beauty that men used to have before fashion got hold of them–the beauty of men who get their muscles from work, not workouts. The young girls are graceful and unconcerned. One of the many lovely images here shows a plump girl in shorts lying dreaming across the trunk lid of a Chevrolet. The car is parked under trees in full summer leaf, and a dappled light softens its reflective surfaces, giving the girl the ineffable aura of grace.
Gedney appreciated beauty wherever he found it. He was a connoisseur of light who admired the human body and the capacities of the human spirit. In one of his notebooks, he transcribed this telling quote from an unnamed book on Indian philosophy: “The mind is in constant agitation. It is continually transforming itself into the shapes and objects of which it becomes aware. It assumes the forms and colors of everything offered to it by the senses, imagination, memory and emotions. It is endowed with the power of transformation or metamorphosis which is boundless and never at rest.”
It is this sense of imaginative empathy that makes Gedney’s pictures so admirable.
To see a cache of Gedney’s photographs and writings, go to http://scri ptorium.lib.duke.edu/gedney/