Throwback Thursday: William Gedney Was 'A Good Witness' of Kentucky 1964-1972

Rear of car with Leslie County Kentucky license plate and bumper sticker reading "We dig coal", 1972© Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

William Gedney grew up in New York state, but his eye was trans-American. At some point after studying at the Pratt Institute in the late 40s and early 50s, Gedney took his camera to Leatherwood, Kentucky where he lived ("embedded" would be too strong a term) with the family of an unemployed ex-coal miner. Drawn into their community and surroundings, Gedney turned his camera on the slow days, simple decor, and run-down surroundings that came to be synonymous with "mountain people" and rural citizens in general. However, Gedney never sought to vulture Southern ways for gritty "authentic" photos. He kept in touch with his host family for over a decade, sending them a portion of the money he received when he had his first and only photo make the print pages of a magazine (Three Girls, below).

Gedney's work in Kentucky did draw attention, and based on the honesty of his photos he received a Guggenheim grant in order to capture Americana through his personal lens. He used the money to travel cross country, and his subsequent work of people outside the normal suburban existence comprised an exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art. 

Gedney never realized the high acclaim of some of his contemporaries, but influenced several generations of students as an instructor at his alma mater, the Pratt Institute. His other well-known subjects include the Stonewall protests in New York City and festivals in India, all shot with the same care and respect as these early photos from rural Kentucky.

Woman with her arm around a man as they sit on a porch looking away from the camera, 1964 © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Young Girl, 1964 © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Woman wearing a dress, standing in a doorway, 1964© Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Poker game; little girl looking at camera, 1972  © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Small child dragging a gun under porch where children are playing, 1964 © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Girl jumping on truck laying on its side, 1964. © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Baby lying on floor, Nixon on TV, 1972. © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Three girls in kitchen, 1964. © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Girl lying on trunk of a car, 1972. © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

Gravel road through trees, 1972  © Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library 

"In 1964 and in 1966 William Gedney made extended photographic studies of two groups of Americans who live outside the value structure that most of their countrymen consider normal. The first of these groups was a community in the mountains of eastern Kentucky--a remnant of earlier agricultural and industrial systems. The second was a gaggle of young radicals in San Francisco, dedicated to challenging the traditional western virtues of ambition and success. The latter group dropped out by choice. The former had been dropped out by the choice of history.

"Both groups have been made pawns in the game of debating the state of the American experiment. Sunday supplements and scholarly journals have agreed that the people of both groups are important as symbols or as symptoms--that they are on one hand merely victims, and on the other merely protesters.

"Gedney's pictures make it clear that the individuals involved are more complex and more interesting than the cliches. these are not photographs of hillbilllies and hippies, but of people living precariously under difficulty. Rather than reminding us once more of the conventional assumptions we have been conditioned to accept, these pictures reward us with real knowledge of the lives of specific people. 

"Gedney, being a good witness, does not attempt to direct our verdict concerning the quality of these lives. He does allow us to see that they are in many ways like our own."

Wall label for the MOMA exhibit written by John Skarkowski, then the museum's Director of Photography

See more at the Duke University Library Digital Collection.

LAST WEEK'S THROWBACK:

THE FAMILIAR GHOSTS OF CARROLL CLOAR