Photographers on Photographers: Looking for the Ghost of William Gedney

© William Gedney

Post by Roger May

This is the first William Gedney photograph I remember seeing. He made this picture of Junior Cornett in 1972 in Leatherwood, Kentucky on his second, and last, trip there. I remember seeing this picture and being reminded of my grandfather, Cecil May (also from eastern Kentucky). Perhaps it was his hair and the way he held his cigarette. From that moment, I've been ineffably connected to Gedney's work. Visually, his photographs offer me what Wendell Berry's words do.

I've spent countless hours meticulously going through his work prints, contact sheets, journals, notes, and personal papers at Duke University's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses approximately 5,000 items of Gedney's. I've also handled his passport, read parts of his medical records and his meticulous notes as he tried to matter-of-factly make sense of the AIDS virus that was slowly taking him away.

Sitting at the broad table in the library with all of this material spread out before me, I close my eyes and try to picture myself in the room, at the table, at the studio in hopes of a glimpse of his ghost. I wrestle with a feeling of invading his privacy, but ultimately thinking it would be of less importance to him than making work. I've read that he was an intensely private person. But still, handwritten notes like, "Diane Arbus called and told me she has suggested me for a teaching job at Cooper Union that she is giving up. She is very nice, I like her very much and it was very kind of her" offer glimpses of who he was away from the camera.

© William Gedney

His work resonates with me on a number of different levels, but I suppose I'm most impacted by how he chose to look at, to see Appalachia. It wasn't a one-off way of seeing for him, for he brought that same quietness, stillness, and earnestness to other parts of the world: New York, India, San Francisco. The consistency is appreciated. The grace with which we made note of moments he wanted to remember, wanted to share, needed to share.

I'm fascinated by his eastern Kentucky photographs. Try as I may, I haven't been able to figure out why he chose Appalachia to make photographs, but I'm so very glad he did. Nowhere can I find the reason that led him to Perry County, Kentucky. In the early 1960's, Appalachia saw a flood of photographers, news crews and filmmakers (think Charles Kuralt's Christmas in Appalachia circa 1964) come into the hills and hollers as part of the War on Poverty campaign. By and large, they formed a disparaging visual narrative of the place I was born and raised. Yet somehow, he transcended that tendency and instead made photographs of grace, beauty, and simple existence all the while capturing the challenging environs of those he photographed. There must've been something about his spirit that caused him to see what others did not, would not, perhaps could not.

His journal writing (1964) reveals a keen insight into some of the region's problems: "The region is rugged and isolated, the people are trapped in a circle of poverty, bad schools, corrupt politics and unskilled labor etc. Though I do not consider myself a 'social-problem' photographer, I hope something of this part of America and its people is conveyed to you."

© William Gedney

Gedney was obsessive, meticulous, and incredibly focused. For extended periods of time, he made a record of everything he bought, keeping exact totals down to the penny. It's this thoroughness, this great care that is ever present in not just his photographs, but his working method.

"Either you feel that a thing must be perfect before you present it to the public, or you are willing to let it go out even knowing that it is not perfect, because you are striving for something even beyond what you have achieved, but in struggling too hard for perfection you know that you may lose the very glimmer of life, the very spirit of the thing that you also know exists at a particular point in what you have done; and that to interfere with it would be to destroy that very living quality."

Gedney's Appalachia work is refreshing to me because it feels so incredibly real. Margaret Sartor, a photographer, writer, and teacher at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, noted that, "We keep looking because it (Gedney's work) feels so genuine." I couldn't agree more. His unassuming presence allowed him to capture moments so obviously absent from most of the work I've seen from Appalachia, that one has to wonder why so few photographs like this exist. Certainly at the time he was photographing in Appalachia, there was a stream of imagery coming out of there that I feel shaped the way we look at Appalachia today. For me, Gedney chose to see and show the deeper humanity of my home. How he saw the world, my world, challenges me to be truer, to be more authentic when I work.

William Gedney died on June 23, 1989 at 56. In his lifetime, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for photography (1966-67), a Fulbright Fellowship for photography in India (1969-71), a National Endowment for the Arts grant in photography (1975-76), and several other grants and fellowships. He had a show at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1968-69) as well as more than a dozen other exhibitions. Four years after his death, in 1993, Duke University became the repository for 51.3 linear feet of Gedney's work. Margaret Sartor was approached by the Rubenstein Library and asked to put together an exhibit of Gedney's work. In 2000, she and Geoff Dyer coedited What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney.

Gedney's work always commands my attention. It isn't forceful, overbearing, or gimmicky. He presents grace, beauty and humanity in a people often marginalized and dismissed. These are things that are important to me, qualities he captured about the people and place that means so much to me. He didn't shy away from poverty or hard times, instead he chose not to make it the focus of his work. Because of that, we get to see something so few who make photographs in Appalachia can show us. By pressing in close enough, quietly enough, in the words of Thomas Roma, he captured the beauty of our sameness.

Roger May (b. 1975) is an Appalachian American photographer currently living in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was born in the Tug River Valley, located on the West Virginia and Kentucky state line, in the heart of what is commonly known as Hatfield and McCoy country. He served in the Army for seven years. His photographs and essays have been published in The Oxford American, The Guardian, THE WEEK, The Bitter Southerner, The American Guide, Appalachian Heritage, AARP, and others. In February 2014, he started the crowdsourced Looking at Appalachia | 50 Years After the War on Poverty project. May speaks about his work, about issues of Appalachian representation, and photographs on commission.

He writes the series Looking at Appalachia on his blog, Walk your camera.