In 2013, Alec Soth’s imprint, Little Brown Mushroom, released Iris Garden, a beautifully designed book featuring photographs by William Gedney accompanied by some writing by John Cage. The book was shortlisted for the Aperture Foundation’s Photobook of the Year Award and helped reintroduce Gedney’s work to a growing audience of photographers and book lovers. Just a few years later, the University of Texas released William Gedney: Only the Lonely, 1955-1984, a retrospective monograph that examines Gedney’s work from his earliest days to his untimely death from AIDS related complications, helping to secure his status an important photographer of his generation.
In a continued examination of Gedney’s life and oeuvre, earlier this year Duke University Press released A Time of Youth: San Francisco, 1966-1967, a book developed by Gedney in 1968 but previously unpublished. The pictures were made on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966-1967, at the height of the 60s social revolution. The pictures were all made in Haight-Ashbury and San Francisco, an epicenter for the counterculture movements that defined the era. In organizing this new publication, Lisa McCarthy, former Curator of Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University, remained faithful to Gedney’s original version of the book, following exactly the original sequence in the mock-up, and adhering to all Gedney’s specific notes about the publication (including information as precise as the exact dimensions of the pages).
The book is divided into three basic parts. McCarthy provides a short introduction, looking at Gedney’s work and the original 1968 mock-up of A Time of Youth held in the Duke University archives. This intro is followed by Gedney’s photographs, which offer a candid and melancholic look at hippy culture. A Time of Youth is developed somewhat like the early books by Larry Clark, introducing a cast of characters that we see coming again throughout the sequence, developing a visual narrative about a community. Rather than documenting the youthful, idealistic movement that often is reflected in studies of the 1960s, the people in A Time of Youth are more idle than idealistic; Gedney’s photographs document more posturing than radicalism, more lounging than revolution. Indeed, much of the book shows his cast of characters lying around on makeshift beds, usually just a mattress on the floor (and you can almost smell the pot).
A self-taught artist, and friends with the likes of Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, Gedney’s was a quieter path. Deeply committed to an immersive approach to photojournalism, he found humble ways to support his work and interests.
The epigraph of the book reveals a great deal about Gedney’s perspective on the youth culture he witnessed in San Francisco, courtesy of John Cage: “They seem to be doing happy things sadly, or maybe they’re doing sad things happily.” In using the quote from Cage, Gedney suggests apathy rather than joy, as though the people in his photographs are more resigned than celebratory. This perspective is made clear in the closing sequence, as the characters portrayed in his photographs attend a large rally or event – the first we see of them engaging in any sort of political or social action. The final picture of the book offers a bold and discouraging statement: rather than a crowd of a magnitude that might genuinely define a movement, we are left with a lone individual isolated from all around him, slowly watching all his peers dissolve into a landscape, looking hollow and depleted.
The final part of the book contains essays by American author and critic Philip Gefter and Lisa McCarthy. Gefter’s essay attempts to “elucidate Gedney’s artistic impulse,” by looking at his early work and influences. The photographer’s earliest projects were made in farm country in upstate New York and mining country in Eastern Kentucky, and Gefter draws a line connecting Gedney to important documentary traditions, likening his work to artists like Walker Evans and Bruce Davidson. He points out the emotional austerity and complexity that make Gedney’s work so compelling. McCarthy’s afterword contains some wonderful pieces of material culled from the Gedney archives, including contact sheets, pictures edited out of the original mock-up of A Time of Youth, pages from Gedney’s journals (including some pages of a hippy slang dictionary Gedney compiled), and even a few self-portraits.
Rather than documenting the youthful, idealistic movement that often is reflected in studies of the 1960s, the people in A Time of Youth are more idle than idealistic.
Gedney provides an interesting and refreshing model as a photographer. A self-taught artist, and friends with the likes of Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, Gedney’s was a quieter path. Deeply committed to an immersive approach to photojournalism, he found humble ways to support his work and interests. Gedney would often take simple jobs – avoiding the routes of fashion or mass media work available to photographers at his time – in libraries or similar places. He’d save his money, and then leave his jobs to devote himself entirely to photography, pursuing extended projects in San Francisco, India, and Brooklyn. Gedney had only one solo show in his lifetime (albeit at MoMA), and no major publications. Nevertheless, his archives reveal a deeply dedicated artist who worked with photography and books (the archives at Duke University hold 7 different mock-ups Gedney developed), whose work is characterized by a great sensitivity and critical inquiry. A Time of Youth offers another glimpse into Gedney’s work, and a unique window into the counterculture of San Francisco in the late 1960s.