The Dublin photographs of William Gedney


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.

William Gedney, Entire Cornett family on porch, 1964

©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Entire Cornett family on porch, 1964


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.

William Gedney, Boy with arms crossed, 1972

Boy with arms crossed, 1972, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library



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.

William Gedner, Boy looking out of truck bed, 1972

©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Boy looking out of truck bed, 1972


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.

William Gedney, RDS Dublin 1974

RDS, Dublin, 1974 ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


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.

William Gedney, Nude man stretching at seashore, 1974

Nude man stretching at seashore, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


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.

William Gedney, Elderly women and man on street, Dublin 1974

Elderly women and man on street, Dublin 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


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.

William Gedney, Two men talking outside horse stall, Ballsbridge, Dublin, 1974

Two men talking outside stall with horse, Ballsbridge, Dublin, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


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.

William Gedney, Boy at outdoor ampitheatre, 1974

Boy at outdoor ampitheatre, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

William Gedney, Boy selling newspapers, 1974

Boy selling newspapers, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


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?

William Gedney, Boys leaning over and sitting on fence at races, Ballsbridge, 1974

Boys leaning over and sitting on fence at races, Ballsbridge, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


Aran sweater, drawstring jacket, sports coats, pleated trousers, unruly hair and the big dog-eared collar again: the sartorial world of the early Seventies.

William Gedney, Self-portrait, 1974

Self-portrait, Dublin, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


Dieter Waeckerlin at Okay Art


Dieter Waeckerlin's Behr sideboard, 1958

Dieter Waeckerlin’s Behr sideboard, 1958


I very much liked Dieter Waeckerlin’s design furniture on show at Okay Art in Basel. Waeckerlin is a Basel furniture and interior designer active from the 1950s through to the 1970s and Okay Art is the perfect place to showcase his work. The vintage design gallery is housed in a Herzog & de Meuron townhouse at 11 Schützenmattstrasse. Reha Okay and his wife Nadine have been pioneering vintage furniture and design in Basel for a while now. Reha has an eye for clean lines, signature designers and appreciates the modulated look of early Modernism through to Bauhaus and on down to the Scandinavians.



I never knew what a Hugo cocktail was, and I always appreciate learning something new. It’s a smidgin of elderflower wine in some crushed ice and fresh mint, Prosecco (or in this part of the world – Alsace Crémant) and a bit of sparkling water. Absolutely perfect for a hot muggy Tuesday evening in Basel, with thunderstorms in the afternoon and more in the offing.



Waeckerlin’s furniture is a clear mix as well, between the austere functionalism of the Bauhaus and the cabinet tradition of the Scandinavian moderns. He was interested in the interior as planned, functional living space, the idea behind the Jugendstil (the Gesamtkunstwerk) pared down considerably. Minimalism, order and workmanship are his signature contributions to design. So spare is his work that he often left out handles altogether, relying on touch and sometimes magnets to open and close doors.


Saffa desk lamp designed by Dieter Waeckerlin

Saffa desk lamp designed by Dieter Waeckerlin


He acquired his appreciation of timber early, and was not afraid to put timber on metal and to play them off against each other, especially tropical woods. He liked suspended cubes and oblongs. The interior of his sideboard for the German company Behr is of pale birch and maple with modular, removable shelving and storage. It looks like a coffin on trestles and is his most famous piece. If you took out all the wonderfully carpentered drawers you could fit a corpse inside. The above Saffa desk lamp follows the same clean, utilitarian logic.

1960s dining chairs designed by Dieter Waeckerlin

1960s dining chairs designed by Dieter Waeckerlin


The rare curves in the room were provided by Waeckerlin’s dining chairs around a solid-looking dining table that takes a bit of getting used to. It was made from Macassar and iron for Idealheim, the Basel company which produced most of his work.



Professor Dominic Haag-Walthert of the Hochschule in Luzern gave us a run through the salient points of Waeckerlin’s life and career. A number of people at the vernissage mentioned that their parents had pieces of Waeckerlin’s furniture and they remembered taking it to the brocki (Brockenstube: a furniture recycling centre) sometime in the late decades of the twentieth century. There is a definite Swiss aesthetic to Waeckerlin’s designs: they seem the furniture expression of a need for order, the need to pare things down to essentials, puritanism on legs. The exhibition is at Okay Art at 11 Schützenmattstrasse until 24 June. It’s a great place to pop in for a Hugo or a coffee, and to look at the wonderful vintage art and furniture on display.


Herzog & de Meuron townhouse at 11 Schützenmattstrasse, Basel

Herzog & de Meuron townhouse at 11 Schützenmattstrasse, Basel




Vivian Maier in Thailand

I’m a great fan of the Chicago-based street photographer Vivian Maier. Her considerable body of photographic work – in black and white, in colour, in movie format – is still seeing the light of day. John Maloof, who almost by happenstance discovered her archive, makes new finds every day. Maier worked as a nanny for a number of families in Chicago. While her photos show the influence of the ambient photographic styles of the day, as you would expect, the best of her work rivals the greats. She was particularly good photographing children and the downtrodden. Her photos remind us of the underside of American prosperity, always salutary, especially in an election year.

June 5, 1959, Thailand

Though she remained mostly in Chicago and New York, she did travel to India, Puerto Rico, Canada, Yemen, Thailand, Vietnam, Egypt, and throughout Europe. In June 1959 she was in Thailand. Mayer kept everything meticulously filed it, so one day a full account of her travels with a camera will emerge. Meanwhile we have these three photos she took in Thailand, which caught my eye. I’m relying on my friends in Bangkok to identify the above temple scene. The soaring stupas are under a rainy-season sky, and John Maloof gives the date of June 5, 1959. The composition and contrast in shade are lovely, the temple dog almost camouflaged by the undergrowth. It’s a scene of decay and renewal.


The self-portrait with Rolliflex could have been taken anywhere in Bangkok, but it has the look of New Road or perhaps around Hua Lampong train station. It may not even have been taken in Bangkok. A group of schoolgirls in the background could be from any decade – the uniform length hasn’t changed. Vivian is protected from the July heat by her trademark floppy hat. The wavering reflection in the mirror shows a traffic police podium and a street crossing. I like in particular the way the underside of the galvanise awning creates a crazy cross-hatching, echoed by the chaotic wiring above the street. It’s a hot, dusty, bleached Thai street scene, not too different from when I first saw the country in 1983.

June 5, 1959, Thailand

This lovely portrait shot of two children is also dated June 5 1959, so perhaps it was taken in the precinct of the same temple. The white paste on the little girls’ faces and shoulders is part of a religious ritual, a sign of protection to ward off evil – perhaps even the evil eye.

June 27, 1959, Asia

Another fine composition here in this portrait of the boatman, probably taken with the Rolliflex on her knee, so the rowing man is not particularly aware the shot is being taken. It’s dated June 27, 1959, somewhere in Asia. A further photo seems to be to have been taken in Malaysia or Indonesia, again on June 27 1959.

June 27, 1959, Asia

If you’re new to the work of Vivian Maier, go have a browse at John Maloof’s Vivian Maier site. The documentary about her is also excellent, and a trailer for it is here on YouTube. An example of one of her home movies is here, also on YouTube. You can also find my July 2014, much fuller post on Vivian Maier here.