It’s 1964. In Kentucky, in front of a rickety wooden house, ragged children stand around a washbasin. One pours water over the hair of an older woman. It’s the sort of scene that could have been shot at any earlier time in the history of photography. Two or three years later, in San Francisco, a youth stares into the camera. His denim jacket, his sweater, his firm pose – little would be out of place today.
These are just two of the Americas caught by William Gedney, one of the country’s outstanding post-war photographers. Though based in Brooklyn, where he studied and later taught at the Pratt Institute, from 1964 onwards Gedney embarked on a series of tours to the West Coast and the Deep South. In doing so, he witnessed both poverty-stricken squalor and the birth of hippie culture, taking in streets-at-night and gay liberation marches along the way.
Gedney's photography is suffused with an open sense of humanity. Despite often standing at the edges of conventional American society, he doesn’t judge his subjects, nor try to mould them into cliché. Instead, he brings them all to a level: removing their social distinctions and presenting them as the individuals they really are. On 5 February, New York's Howard Greenberg Gallery will open an exhibition, All Roads Eventually Lead to Mysteries, dedicated to Gedney's photos of the US.
According to the English writer Geoff Dyer – who co-edited Gedney’s photographs and notebooks – “The extraordinary thing about the people in these photographs, in other words, is that they are so ordinary. Haircut aside, the guy stretched out on the hood of a car might as well be in east Kentucky as in Northern California.” For Dyer, this sense of levelling extends to time itself: “his own pictures make the new look old, as if the photos somehow predated their subject. Or, to make the same point the opposite way, they make the 1960s seem like they happened a long time ago: in the 1950s, in fact!”
Gedney believed that shooting the everyday would let him imprint his personality on the images. The aesthetics of the photograph interested him as much as the subject. In Gedney’s own words, “I am concerned first with making a good photograph – an uncropped blending of form, value and content.” He was so transfixed with this aim that he seldom completed a project, and kept returning to the same places throughout his career. He even took dozens of pictures of the view from his apartment window, like an American photographic version of the British painter Frank Auerbach.
Gedney was also an obsessive reader. When he wasn’t working, he spent much of his time theorising about his practice. He kept countless notebooks, many containing notes on making notebooks. A quote he took down from Hungarian composer Béla Bartok could be his mantra: “what matters most of all, is to penetrate into the pulsing of life of the people themselves, to become imbued with their way of living... to distill and preserve something more significant than a song on record, something beyond music and words, an abstract essence that will remain a living force within you.”
Though highly respected by his peers – including the photographers Diane Arbus, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander, and curators Raghubir Singh and John Szarkowski – Gedney was under-appreciated for much of his lifetime. All eight of his planned books failed to find a publisher and his reputation only began to spread in the 1980s, when MoMA began to collect his work. After Gedney’s death from AIDS in 1989, Friedlander donated his 5,000-item archive to Duke University, where it remains today.
Stripping away mythos and prejudice with their simplicity and sympathy, Gedney’s photographs offer a unique glimpse into the real post-war America.