San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

photo: John Hazeltine

San Francisco, CA




Short Distances and Definite Places: The Photographs of William Gedney


The eloquent black-and-white photographs of William Gedney (1932-89) capture the grace and strength of people living on the edges of society. During his lifetime few people knew of the very private Gedney beyond a small group of fellow photographers and curators, but now 88 of his compelling pictures will be on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) from January 21 through May 16, 2000.

Organized by SFMOMA Curator of Photography Sandra S. Phillips, Short Distances and Definite Places: The Photographs of William Gedney is the first exhibition to present a survey of the work of this important American photographer. The pictures are taken largely from two distinct bodies of work Gedney created from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s: pictures taken of coal miners' families in the hollows of eastern Kentucky and of hippies in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The exhibition will also include later street scenes made in Indian cities and photographs Gedney took of the ever-changing view from the window of his cold-water flat in Brooklyn.

"William Gedney's photographs are works of great integrity and quiet originality," says Phillips. "A number of photographers have looked at people living in contingent circumstances, but it has rarely been done so gracefully and with such sensitivity. Whether it was a Kentucky coal miner's family or a group of kids taking emotional risks in San Francisco, Gedney was interested in the beauty of the very fragile."

For more than two decades, Gedney led a modest life, supporting his creative work by occasional teaching. Whenever possible he would take leave to dedicate himself to his photography, making only sporadic efforts to bring the work to public attention. When he died of AIDS in 1989, he left behind a vast and meticulous archive of photographs and notebooks that now resides in the collection of Duke University. The exhibition draws its works from the Duke collection, as well as from SFMOMA's own extensive photography holdings.


William Gedney, Untitled, Kentucky, 1972; Collection Duke University


A Life in Photography

Born in Albany and raised in upstate New York, Gedney discovered photography while an art student at the Pratt Institute. Before teaching, he worked briefly at Condé Nast publications and then Time, Inc., doing photo layouts, each time quitting once he had saved enough money to devote himself to his art. In 1964 he traveled to eastern Kentucky and spent 11 days living with and photographing the Cornett family -- Willie, Vivian and their twelve children -- forming a profound connection with them in this brief time. Keeping in touch through letters over the years, Gedney returned again to photograph the family in 1972.

The austere yet quietly sensual photographs Gedney took in Kentucky depict the everyday economy of movement and unintended elegance of gesture that he found there. His images reveal the balletic grace of the Cornett girls as they peel potatoes in the kitchen and the beauty of the young men as they study the perpetually broken-down secondhand cars that are the center of their world. As Gedney wrote in one of his handmade notebooks, "I prefer the ordinary action, the intimate gesture, an image whose form is an instinctive reaction to the material." (left: Untitled, Kentucky, 1972, Collection of Duke University; right: Untitled, Kentucky, 1964, Collection of Duke University)

A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966 (awarded after a recommendation from Walker Evans, whose work Gedney greatly admired) allowed him to set off cross country, taking pictures along the way. Often these photographs depict night scenes lit only by streetlamps, eerily animated by shadows and advertising and street signs. At the end of the year he arrived in San Francisco and began photographing a small group of men and women living communally in the Haight, following them as they bunked down in one vacant apartment after another.

Here, also, Gedney displays a rare communion with his subjects and their environment. Many pictures find the photographer unobtrusively positioned at the edge of the group or looking over figures entwined in sleep, accepted as a presence but slightly detached from events. Occasionally, he photographs someone looking directly at him, and the person's watchful gaze seems to mirror Gedney's own focused attention.

In 1968 Gedney had his first and only solo exhibition, organized by John Szarkowski, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, featuring works from Kentucky and San Francisco. His later work was focused mainly around two lengthy trips to India ten years apart (funded by Fulbright and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships) that resulted in a lyrical set of pictures of people living in the cramped, old sections of cities. Gedney also carefully constructed book dummies of the San Francisco pictures and a series on living composers. Three photographs in the exhibition -- of Waiter Piston, Henry Weinberg and Gian Carlo Menotti -- represent this group of over 50 informal portraits of American composers that Gedney produced in the late '60s. Considering possible titles for a book, Gedney recorded the following lines from W.H. Auden's poem "In Praise of Limestone": "examine this region/of short distances and definite places." Fittingly, SFMOMA has drawn from this source in titling Gedney's retrospective exhibition. (left: Untitled, San Francisco, 1966 - 1967, Collection of Duke University; right: Untitled, San Francisco, 1967, Collection of Duke University)

Also featured in the SFMOMA presentation are a handful of prints from a series Gedney took of Myrtle Avenue, the street where he lived in Brooklyn, and its inhabitants. The chance relationships of figures, unaware that they share the camera frame, invoke something of the solitude seen in Edward Hopper's paintings, an acknowledged influence on Gedney's urban images.

Over the last ten years of his life Gedney initiated relatively few new projects, one being photographs of the annual June rally commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riots. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and died on June 23, 1989, leaving his work to the care of his friends, the photographer Lee Friedlander and his wife, Maria.

The exhibition will be accompanied by the first monograph on Gedney's work What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney, edited by Margaret Sartor and co-edited by Geoff Dyer. To be published in December 1999 as a Lyndhurst Book by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in association with W.W. Norton & Company, it will be available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore.

Read more about the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10

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