William Gedney: All Facts Eventually Lead to Mysteries @Howard Greenberg

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space, the book alcove, and the entry area. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1960 and 1975. Physical sizes range from roughly 7×10 to 11×14 (or reverse). The show also includes a vitrine with Gedney’s notebooks and Guggenheim Fellowship application, as well as portraits of Gendey made by Lee Friedlander and Arthur King. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: William Gedney’s decades-old images of the Cornett family from rural Kentucky have aged remarkably well. Taken in two trips, first in 1964 and then again in 1972, and largely overlooked in the years following a 1968 MoMA show curated by John Szarkowski, his photographs settle into a comfortable, honest engagement with the extended clan, foregoing the usual backcountry poverty clichés typical of this kind of imagery. His pictures are plain-spoken and empathetic, with a dose of unadorned lyricism that balances the harsh realities of out-of-work coal miners struggling to provide for houses full of children.

While the parents do make appearances now and again in Gedney’s photographs (often as weary overseers or silent authority figures), the Cornett kids dominate these pictures. Ranging in age from babies in diapers to grown men in their twenties (some seen in both sets of images, eight years apart), his subjects struggle with the nuances of adolescence and the domestic duties of a large family.

Gedney’s images of young men are his strongest, chronicling the incremental development of masculine identity. The youngest of the boys scamper around like puppies, hanging on the their older siblings, getting piggy back rides, and seemingly happily unaware of dirt. As teenagers, a strain of self-conscious posing emerges, with shirts off, sitting in trucks, rolling awkward cigarettes, and quietly searching for the right way to behave. By the time they are fully grown, the young men have adapted to the surroundings, mixing earnest group-oriented work (almost always involving a busted car or truck engine), with resigned idling; muscled shirtless bodies linger in the yard, a beer and a smoke never too far away.

Gedney certainly had the gift of careful, seemingly easy going but sneakily formal composition. A few of his squared off portraits echo the precision of Walker Evans in Alabama, but most play with the angles made by multiple bodies with more subdued elegance. Bent arms traverse space, warm afternoon sun burnishes skin, car hoods and porch posts slash across and through, and dark interior shadows add close intimacy to everyday tasks like washing dishes and caring for children. Several of the vintage prints on view have a lusciously tactile patina – an image of two men crouching under a battered truck, their skin and its sheet metal dappled in the light, is just one example of Gedney’s thoughtful attention to surface.

This show also includes a sampler of Gedney’s work outside of Kentucky, including dark early 1960s bar scenes from Brooklyn, mid 1960s hippie-vibed images from San Francisco, and a selection of night views of darkened houses and parked cars. Like his rural work, an undercurrent of loneliness sifts through these projects as well. Faces laugh in the sparkling emptiness, couples huddle in crowded hallways, and streetlights provide a blast of light that softens the shivering melancholy only just a bit.

With the benefit of hindsight, Gedney’s work feels like a stylistic bridge, mixing the earlier formalism and post-war moodiness of Evans and Robert Frank with the familial intimacy and societal alienation of early Emmet Gowin and Robert Adams; even though his photographs are perhaps less well known than those of his contemporaries, they fit right into the stream of artistic thinking taking place at that time. While Gedney may be a (re)discovery for many who visit this show, the quality of the work on view here should force us to raise his profile once again.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $5500 and $9000. Gedney’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the only option for those collectors interested in following up.

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