William Gale Gedney, born 29 October 1932, was an American documentary and street photographer. It wasn't until after his death that his work gained momentum and is now widely recognised. He is best known for his series on rural Kentucky, and series on India, San Francisco and New York shot in the 1960s and 1970s.
Gedney was born in Greenville, New York. He studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. In 1955 he graduated with a BFA in Graphic Design and began work with Condé Nast.
During his lifetime, Gedney received several fellowships and grants, including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship from 1966 to 1967, a Fulbright Fellowship for photography in India from 1969 to 1971, a New York State Creative Artists Public Service Program (C.A.P.S.) grant from 1972 to 1973; and a National Endowment for the Arts grant from 1975 to 1976.
In a career spanning late 1950s to the mid-1980s, he created a large body of work, including series documenting local communities during his travels to India, San Francisco and New York shot in 1960s and 1970s. In 1969, he started teaching at Pratt Institute.
He is also noted for night photography, principally of large structures, like the Brooklyn bridge and architecture, and architectural studies of neighbourhoods quiet and empty, in the night.
"A lover of literature, he found early inspiration for his work in another New Yorker: Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Gedney was fascinated by people in all their complexity and was an exceptional portraitist, using his camera rather than a pen; like Whitman, he was especially drawn to street life and crowds."
If you would like to explore Gedney's preoccupation with Whitman, you can read the article "I Wander all Night in My Vision: Commemorating William Gedney and Walt Whitman" by Duke University Libraries.
Gedney's work has been exhibited in numerous group shows, including Museum of Modern Art shows, Photography Current Report in 1968, Ben Schultz Memorial Collection in 1969, and Recent Acquisitions in 1971; as well as Vision and Expression, George Eastman House, and Rochester Institute of Technology, in 1972. However, he remained a recluse, having only one solo exhibition during his lifetime. Despite receiving appreciation from noted photographers of the time, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and John Szarkowski, he remained an under-appreciated artist of the generation. He didn't manage to get any of his eight book projects published.
William Gedney died of complications from AIDS in 1989, aged 56, in New York City and is buried in Greenville, New York, a few short miles from his childhood home. Despite teaching at Pratt Institute since 1969, in 1987, two years before his death, he was denied tenure. He left his photographs and writings to his lifelong friend Lee Friedlander. In time, Friedlander's efforts, which had earlier led to the revival of E. J. Bellocq's works, chartered a posthumous revival of Gedney's work.
An extensive collection of his work, including large photographic prints, work prints, contact sheets, negatives, sketchbooks, notebooks and diaries, correspondence, and other files are housed at the Rubenstein Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. The archive has been digitised and can be explored here.
Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations
Only the Lonely San Francisco 1966 - 1967
1955 - 1984 William Gedney