William Gedney (1932-1989) was a street photographer whose work has only gained in reputation since his early death from AIDS at the age of fifty-six. He was born in Greenville (Edgemont), Westchester County, New York, but is best known for his gritty photos of Kentucky, Calcutta and Benares in India. He also documented gay life in San Francisco and taught photography at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for many years until his untimely death.
He spent time, in 1964 and again in 1972, with one large, extended family, the Cornetts, in rural Kentucky. Willy Cornett, a laid-off miner, and his wife Vivian had twelve children. From this period we see Gedney’s documentary impulse emerge, and his harking back to the Thirties photographers of the South and the Farm Security Administration (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and others). The above family portrait echoes earlier porch photographs by these iconic photographers.
He is fond of placing his subjects in or under cars and on front porches. He gives a kind of grease-monkey charge to his male figures. The proportion of happy accident and posed masterpiece in his photographs is high. Their grey light, the colour of wrecked car chassis and dusty oil, is a wonder to behold.
Gedney was a curious, observant traveller and kept detailed notebooks. His archive at Duke University Library is full of surprises and a profitable hour or two can be spent scrolling through its images, hardly any of which saw the light of day during his lifetime. The part of his large archive which interests me records his visit to Ireland in 1974. He photographed mostly in and around Dublin, and from the evidence it must have been Horse Show weekend, an annual event in mid-August.
I have a particular affection for this group of photos because it is the Ireland I knew, during the last period of sustained time I spent in the country. The black and white mitigates against any false sense of the modern, though the signs are there, and cuts off any folksiness. In the photo above, I feel I know those formidable women at the Royal Dublin Society Show. They carry their handbags like royalty, as they have been taught to do by the nuns, and wouldn’t hesitate to poke you out of the way with their parasols. The white kid gloves and the Chanel-style suit are pure First Lady Jackie. The look of the lady on the left is gimlet eyed, the cut of the jaw not to be trifled with.
In this photograph of the well-known south Dublin bathing place, the Forty-Foot, all the figures are isolated and distinct. The concrete proscenium breaks up the picture plane and leads the viewer’s eye out to the incoming ferry and Howth Head beyond. The gradations of washed-out grey are surprising, given the strong shadows. the eye is led in an ellipsis from youthful to ageing figure.
This street scene (junction of Caledon Road and East Road, looking north) is in Dublin’s East Wall area, with the Bord Gáis tank at the vanishing point (now vanished!) The men are in eternal sports coats, the talking women in scarf, apron and raincoat. Again we have the strong sunlight and the picture plane centered around an angular horizon and the vertical line of the house front. Gedney captures the bleakness of that particular part of Dublin.
Conversational intimacy, the closeness of people, the surreal decapitation of the horse, make this moment in Ballsbridge full of interest. Gedney has segmented his picture into rectangles of black and white, like a chequerboard. Below, he has made the receding lines of the benches give depth of field to the boy placed dead center.
The boy above selling An Phoblacht and Republican News must have been an IRA sympathiser. The slight resentment in his look reminds me it is 1974 and that trouble in Northern Ireland is in full swing. From the imposing stonework, the location must be outside the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s most public space and symbolic of the 1916 Easter Rising. What I like here in this portrait is the dashund collar of his shirt splayed over a dark jacket, and his quizzical look. It’s almost as if the sitter is asking: Is he Special Branch?
Aran sweater, drawstring jacket, sports coats, pleated trousers, unruly hair and the big dog-eared collar again: the sartorial world of the early Seventies.