William GEDNEY, Gilles Mora (ed., text), Margaret Sartor (text), Lisa McCarty (text)

Only the Lonely, 1955-1984

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"Mysterious, introspective, fiercely private, and self-taught, street photographer William GEDNEY (1932–1989) produced impressive series of images focused on people whose lives were overlooked, hidden, or reduced to stereotypes.
He was convinced that photography was a means of expression as efficient as literature, and his images were accompanied by writings, essays, excerpts from books, and aphorisms.
GEDNEY avoided self-promotion, and his underrepresented work was largely unknown during his short lifetime. He died at the age of fifty-six from AIDS.

'William Gedney: Only the Lonely, 1955–1984' is the first comprehensive retrospective of his photography. It presents images from all of his major series, including eastern Kentucky, where GEDNEY lived with and photographed the family of laid-off coal miner Willie Cornett; San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury, where he attached himself to a group of disaffected youth, photographing them as they drifted from one vacant apartment to the next during the 'Summer of Love'; early photo-reportage of gay pride parades in the eighties; Benares, India, GEDNEY’s first trip abroad, during which he obsessively chronicled the concurrent difficulty and beauty of daily life; and night scenes that, in the absence of people and movement, evoke a profound universal loneliness.

The most complete overview of GEDNEYy’s work to date, this volume reveals the undeniable beauty of a major American photographer." (publisher's note)


'Why am I not able to focus myself?' William GEDNEY wrote in his journal on 21 January 21 1962. 'I have the talent, I love to create, yet why do I waste most of my time, my days, now years in meaninglessness?'
Given his prodigious output – he left 60,000 items in his archive to Duke University, North Carolina, including thousands of prints, countless journals and several unpublished books – this critical self-questioning seems absurd. And yet Gedney, the quiet man of American post-war documentary photography, always seemed acutely concerned that his work might not receive the attention it deserved. Forty-five years on, he remains an undervalued presence in the history of American documentary photography, still relatively unknown. Once seen, though, his quietly powerful photographs cast a haunting spell.

A new book, 'William Gedney: Only the Lonely, 1955–1984', may help elevate GEDNEY to his rightful place in the pantheon. A pioneer of immersive documentary, he made images, whether of poor farmers in rural Kentucky or hippies in San Francisco, that are imbued with a sensual physicality that sets him apart from his better-known peers.

“In his pictures, where young men tinker with broken-down cars or girls hang out in a rundown kitchen, there is a wonderful intimacy,” says one of the book’s editors, Margaret Sartor. “In rural Kentucky, he is not photographing poverty, but instead portrays a close-knit family supporting themselves because they had to in order to survive. For such a private, self-contained person, Gedney had this ability to make his subjects feel comfortable. He deeply respected that family and it shows.”
The family in question were the Cornetts: husband Willie, who had just lost his job as a coal miner, his wife Vivian and their 12 children. GEDNEY spent time living with them in the summer of 1964 and again in 1972. In both series, he avoids the kind of concerned scrutiny that typifies social documentary photography, instead creating an almost languorous atmosphere. The men relax on porches and stretch out on the bonnets of cars, while the young girls seem impervious to his presence or engage directly with his gaze.

'It is like he is using the camera as a tool to see beyond what is visible in people’s lives,' says SARTOR, “their hopes, desires, disappointments.” While she was working on an earlier book about him, some of the Cornetts visited her in Durham, North Carolina. 'The father was still alive then and he spoke of Gedney like he was family. He said that William could have stayed a lifetime with them if he had wanted to.'

Born in Greenville, New York in 1932, GEDNEY began photographing while studying fine art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in the late 50s (where he later taught), and initially funded his own projects though freelance work as a graphic designer.
His first trip to Kentucky was followed in 1966 by a cross-country drive to San Francisco, where, supported by a Guggenheim grant, he caught the first wave of the hippy revolution. There, he lived among a group of young dreamers and drifters who squatted in various buildings in the Haight-Ashbury district that summer. His black and white images are intimate glimpses of a brief utopian moment, beatniks strumming guitars in dark rooms or sleeping on crowded floors.
GEDNEY was a private person by temperament but also because of his homosexuality, which he kept hidden, in part to protect his parents, whom he remained close to throughout his life. His notebooks reflect his internal struggle, not least in the way he equates his clandestine sexual encounters with his lack of creative focus. 'Why am I so restless and unwilling to discipline myself?' GEDNEY writes in that same journal entry from January 1962. 'I let myself slide to the quickest way to forget, to pass the moment in the quickest pleasure, sex. I do not drink or smoke. So I use sexual pleasure and pursuit to fill my days till it becomes an obsession.'

SARTOR believes that GEDNEY’s sexuality is expressed unconsciously through his work “in the way he often captures the relaxed sensuality of the male body. What is certain is that he had an acute understanding of what if felt like to be marginalised and that, too, informed his approach.”

In his lifetime, GEDNEY’s work remained relatively unseen save for a one-man show curated by John SZARKOWSKI at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1968. Until now, only two books of his work have been published – 'What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney' (2000) and 'Iris Garden' (2013), which pairs GEDNEY’s images of John CAGE, made in 1967, with texts by the composer.

The most revelatory chapter in 'Only the Lonely' is devoted to the seven hand-crafted photobooks that GEDNEY made but never sought a publisher for. They include 'Portraits: 50 American Composers' (1967-68), 'Brooklyn Bridge' (1969), a series made over 12 years, and 'A Time of Youth' (1969), a selection of his San Francisco hippy photographs.

Each book is beautifully designed and printed, and it seems extraordinary that none of them were published. 'The level of craft is extraordinary,' says Lisa McCARTY, curator of the archive of documentary arts at Duke University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 'but he was an essentially solitary figure who did not tend to share his work with more than a few close associates, most notably Lee FRIEDLANDER and John SZARKOWSKI.' (Both became executors of his estate.)
GEDNEY did sign a contract with MacMillan for the composers book, but his collaborator, the composer and critic, Eric Saltzman, did not deliver the text and the book was cancelled. 'That certainly affected him to the point that he did not approach other publishers ever again,' says McCARTY.

In 1987, GEDNEY was diagnosed with Aids and he died the following year at his home on Staten Island, New York. 'I believe that from an early age, William GEDNEY looked out at the world and felt his own exile,' writes SARTOR in 'Only the Lonely', 'but it was from this very place of exile that he found his particular point of view as an artist.'" (text: © Sean O'HAGAN, in: William Gedney: A pghotographer exiled in his own land, The Guardian, Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 17.08 GMT, source: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/05/william-gedney-documentary-photography-kentucky-san-francisco)

Gilles MORA has been the editor in chief of the magazine Les Cahiers de la Photographie, an editor with Éditions du Seuil in Paris, and the artistic director of the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles. Currently he is the director of the city of Montpellier’s Pavillon Populaire. He was awarded the Nadar Prize for 'The Last Photographic Heroes: American Photographers of the Sixties and Seventies'.

Margaret SARTOR is a writer, photographer, and curator. She teaches documentary photography at Duke University and is the coeditor with Geoff DYER of 'What Was True: The Photographs and Notes of William Gedney'.

Lisa McCARTY is curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.