William Gedney, A Time of Youth

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Duke University Press (here), in conjunction with the David L. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Jacketed hardcover, 9×9 inches, 176 pages, with 127 black-and-white and color reproductions. Edited with an introduction and afterword by Lisa McCarty and an essay by Philip Gefter. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: William Gedney (1932-1989) was too esteemed by other photographers for his career to be deemed a failure. Walker Evans and Diane Arbus were among his vocal admirers during his lifetime; and the pulse of his reputation has never been so faint since his death that it needed emergency CPR. Discerning curators, dealers, critics, and collectors have kept his name alive.

Although he never gained financial stability, neither did any of his peers who in the 1960s and ‘70s chose to do personal documentary rather than photojournalism or advertising. He worked briefly for Condé Nast and Time; earned Guggenheim, Fulbright, and National Endowment of the Arts fellowships; taught at the Pratt Institute and Cooper Union; completed ambitious series on Brooklyn at night, rural Kentucky, Haight-Ashbury, and India; and had a one-person show at MoMA in 1968. His loyal circle of friends included Lee and Maria Friedlander who (along with Gedney’s brother Richard) oversaw the posthumous donation of Gedney prints, negatives, and writings in rich profusion—76,000 unique images—to Duke University.

An air of melancholy and disappointment nonetheless suffuses his life and photography. His death from AIDS at the age of 56 has certainly contributed to this impression. Add to that his thwarted hopes of crafting his photo-essays into books. None of the seven dummies he meticulously assembled when he was alive found a publisher.

Sadder than any biographical fact, however, are the photographs themselves. His overarching theme was the fragility of the world, especially the heartbreaking beauty of ordinary bodies. So many of his subjects were young and seemingly undefended against the economic or historical forces bearing down on them. The coal mining family in eastern Kentucky with whom he mingled for weeks in 1964 and 1972 were nobodies by the standards of American urban success. Gedney shared their outsider status and viewed their defiant indifference to such values as signs of strength. They would probably never have seen this lyrical quality by themselves if not for his stealthy, deft intrusions into their daily lives; and without their trust in his dedication and decency, his camera would never have been able to access and portray their heroic grace. As with the finest documentary projects, the visible exchange between photographer and photographed can be as moving as the final product and is often indistinguishable from it.

A Time of Youth: San Francisco, 1966-1967 is even more focused on the innate sweetness of vulnerable mid-century American bodies. One of the seven maquettes that he left behind, it consists of photographs made between October 1966 and January 1967 in San Francisco, one of the stops on his Guggenheim travels across the U.S. He shot more than 2,000 negatives during those months, and after returning home to Brooklyn, completed the final edit in 1969. He chose 87 images, sequencing them into seven chapters: “The morning, awakening”; “the day outside”; “Change and reestablishing”; “the day inside”; “The night”; “The new pad”; and “Codification.” None of these titles were intended to be printed, and they haven’t been here. The editor Lisa McCarty and Duke University Press have honored his wishes as closely as possible, from the captionless photographs to the square format of the book. It’s a marvelous piece of archival retrieval and reconstruction.

By either instinct or good fortune, the transitory Gedney happened in late 1966 to bond with a group of disaffected young people who were making Haight-Ashbury their headquarters for communal living. This was more than six months before the so-called Summer of Love, and his pictures of those months both anticipate and diverge from the clichés of photojournalism that would be pervasive in magazines and on television over the next few years. We see acoustic guitars and wooden recorders, sleeping bags and mattresses on the floor, protest buttons on pockets and the rolling of joints, men with shaggy locks and necklaces, women with long bangs and hairbands. The male clothes alternate between Carnaby St. (long coats that reach to the floor, jackets that cinch up almost to the chin) and American army surplus (fatigue jackets). The skirts worn by the women are unusually lengthy for the time (no minis), perhaps due to the chilly San Francisco weather in fall and winter. Missing is face painting or cap wearing, and I detect only one pair of granny glasses—common at any hippie gathering coast-to-coast.

The epigraph for the book is a quote from the San Francisco longshoreman-turned Berkeley philosopher Eric Hoffer who enjoyed popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s for his illiberal social criticism and aphorisms: “Make-believe partakes of the nature of a magic ritual. We not only pretend to be what we are not, but by staging our pretenses we strive to conjure and bring into existence a new genuineness. The strange thing is that often this conjuring act succeeds and we become what we pretend to be.”

Gedney is both tweaking the aspirations of the hippies—one interpretation of Hoffer’s words would be “fake it until you make it”—and sympathizing with their willingness to try on unfamiliar personae in the hopes that one or another of them will suit their needs. They were living together outside the norms inherited from their parents and questioning if untraditional social and erotic combinations could productively work. Without any text to guide us, though, the seven chapters that Gedney hoped would give structure to the 87 images can’t tell much of a story, about striving or anything else. Gedney doesn’t name any individuals or let us follow them across sections. The book basically documents the unexciting routine of anonymous young people sleeping, waking up, eating, snuggling in bed, talking on the phone, and hanging out. Only the first image in the book, a graffiti-festooned wooden door, suggests tension or conflict. Along with facetious phrases such as “Love=Hate” someone has written “No negroes, jews, gypsies, Englishmen, albinos, salesmen, fags, heads, freaks, Irishmen, cops…” and so on.

What is striking is the conformity of the actors: there are almost no people of color in the photographs and almost no mature adults. Someone must have paid the rent for a few of these apartments but it’s impossible to tell who that might be. The absence of any authority figure must have been deliberate on the part of Gedney. Surely these twenty-somethings interacted with elderly people in San Francisco at some point during the day. And yet among the hundreds of men and women in the book, I could identify only one person older than thirty: an old man from the city’s margins. By the time that he finished his edit in 1969, Gedney must have realized that he had been a witness to the rumblings of a revolution by the young and adjusted his selection accordingly. Across the Bay, the Black Panthers were starting to threaten the racial status quo. But there is no trace of them here. Indeed, the contentious politics of the day can only be inferred. Almost all of these young men were ripe for conscription into the Vietnam War, then at its peak. More than a few were probably in San Francisco to evade reporting to their draft boards back home and more than a few were no doubt preparing to make their way north to Canada.

The sadness in these San Francisco photographs is different than the one emanating from his eastern Kentucky essay. He seems more removed from both his California subjects and the Haight-Ashbury scene. While bedding down in these crash pads, he may have become painfully aware that at 34 he was more than a decade older than his crowd of new friends. It can’t always have been fun to be a documentary photographer with a self-appointed 24-hour job while everyone around you has no schedule or responsibilities. Nor would it have been easy to be a closeted gay man in these circumstances. He would have watched (or heard) heterosexual couples experimenting with “free love” at all hours while his repressed-self forced him to be an eavesdropping non-participant. McCarty doesn’t say if Gedney was a drug user. My guess is he wasn’t much of one. In one of his notebooks, he writes of including only a few images of people high on acid or pot because people didn’t do anything interesting in a trance.

By shooting in black-and-white after magazines had transitioned to color, Gedney was declaring himself an artist, distinct in his aims from the packs of photojournalists and news crews swarming over the West Coast during the mid-late 1960s in search of flakey, long-haired, naked, drug-addled American youth. His intimate manner of portraying people and things recalls the chaste sensuality of Dorothea Lange and the intensity of Dave Heath, neither of them models for commercial fortune.

I understand, however, why publishers passed on A Time of Youth. Despite being a precious artifact of a local phenomenon that soon became a global one, it lacks a center or an arc. A purist about his photographs, he didn’t want to restrict their meaning with text, not even a caption giving a specific place and date. His refusal to pander is most perfectly expressed in the last sequence of the book, when he took his camera to a Human Be-In. More than 20,000 attended the 1967 event in Golden Gate Park. The only drama he will allow is that of individuals peacefully standing, sitting, or lying down, alone or coupled, in a crowd. The final image is of a young, cold, neatly dressed young man with his hands in his pockets, looking out across a field where a few distant figures are walking away into a haze.

Gedney’s type of perverse integrity was rare, and we have Duke to thank for bringing this example to light. If the other maquettes are as good as the first two, readers can look forward to further delicacies. Can a museum retrospective be far behind?

Collector’s POV: William Gedney is represented by Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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