A Time of Youth: San Francisco 1966-1967, a new book of William Gedney photographs, was published in February of this year. Lisa McCarty (’13) edited the volume, and contributed the introduction, chronology, and afterword; Philip Gefter contributed the essay, Bill Gedney: A Time of Youth.
We are proud and pleased to share here a conversation between Duke MFA|EDA alumnae, as photographer and Rubenstein Library Archive of Documentary Arts curatorial assistant Cassandra Klos (’20) interviews Lisa McCarty about Gedney, his work, culture and curation.
CK: The book is called A Time of Youth and depicts a very specific time in William Gedney’s life, San Francisco in the 1960s. Can you talk a little bit about how he approached this project? How was he able to be in that place at that time? What informed him to make this book, or make a maquette of this work back then?
LM: One of the prime reasons Gedney travels to San Francisco is because he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966. The premise of his Guggenheim application was that he wanted to record “studies of American life” that would otherwise go unseen in journalism or popular culture. He spent just under three months in San Francisco, which is the longest amount of time that he spen in any place in the U.S. while on the Fellowship. I was only able to know the exact timespan because Gedney took detailed notes about his travels and thought process. I was able to do the math and start to compare the number of days spent in different cities. I was also able to read his accounts of what he encountered; what inspired him and what disappointed him.
CK: William Gedney’s archive was collected by the Archive of Documentary Arts (ADA) in 1992. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience working with Gedney’s archive? From 2014-2019 you were curator of the ADA and I’m curious to hear your initial perceptions of the William Gedney collection? What stood out to you about his archive or what led you to your research about his unpublished books?
LM: I thought about the stewardship of Gedney’s archive as a consistent project, or consistent relationship, throughout my time at the ADA. His work was already part of the collection when I was appointed curator, and the Library had recently committed to a major project to rehouse and reorganize the Gedney archive. It was the most requested photography collection in the ADA for a long time, and was used frequently by researchers. It doesn’t happen very often that such a big collection needs to be reorganized so quickly after acquisition. So in a way it was predetermined that I was going to be working with Gedney just because of the large role that his work plays in the ADA. But I feel really lucky that I also fell in love with the work – which is not a requirement to be a good steward. I quickly began to identify with and admire his work, but also saw an opportunity as a curator to bring another aspect of his practice to light. I decided to focus on the unpublished handmade photobooks in his archive in an attempt to carry out his wishes and as a means to continue building his legacy.
The pictures themselves, just have this sensitivity. The first show I curated [of Gedney’s work] Intimate Gestures was my hypothesis about what he was interested in as a photographer – that he was seeking and exploring intimate relationships through his photography and by embedding and living with people that he photographed. He was seeking connection – but also staying at a distance – and kind of struggling with these competing instincts. So, this conflict and the focus on gesture, body language, and the subtlety of interpersonal relationships all stood out to me.
CK: That’s a beautiful description of his work. For those that don’t know, can you explain the breadth of material that exists in his archive?
LM: There are over 60,000 items in the William Gedney archive; that includes roughly 13,000 prints with a clear distinction between what were test prints and what were finished prints. There are also numerous journals which include descriptions of what he photographed, printing notes, logbooks documenting travel itineraries, and what he’s encountering almost every day. Gedney transcribed sections of books and interviews that resonated with him as well.
Gedney was an extraordinary archivist of his own work long before any of us at the Library came along. He had one of the best organizational systems that I’ve ever seen in a photography archive. There was a clear hierarchy of his materials that indicated what work he wanted to publish and exhibit, or at least the images that he thought were most successful. Many photographers just go through their whole lives making, making, making – and maybe there’s piles and boxes and basic organization. Very few photographers choose to or are able to take the time to actually create a system that would allow a future researcher to understand their decision-making process, but Gedney did.
CK: Let’s talk a little bit more about A Time Of Youth and how that feeds into, all of these things that he created during his lifetime. I’ve had the privilege to look at the new book. You write a very lovely introduction – but before we even read your introduction, we encounter a typewritten note from Gedney himself regarding the hopes for this book and for this body of work. Is this a common thing to happen when it comes to publishing an artist’s work?
LM: It was an intentional decision to have Gedney’s letter as the first text that you encounter in the book, that was part of my methodology. His letter was with the completed maquette A Time Of Youth in the archive and I found it powerful. He is so direct and honest about his intentions and I felt pretty strongly that his words should be at the beginning and end of the book.
CK: In the introduction you mention your approach as an editor was to “reanimate” the book maquette. Can you tell me more about this?
LM: In terms of reanimation, I suppose my approach was different from some posthumous publications out there in the sense that I wasn’t going to go in as a curator and pick the images that I thought were the strongest from the San Francisco work. Gedney made clear image selections and worked for several years on the sequencing of images. I think of A Time of Youth as it is published in 2021 as a reanimation because there have been additions to Gedney’s book to complement the work he had already done, but there was already life and a lot of labor in the project before I came along.
Gedney completed the book design in his lifetime but was not able to publish it. I have tried to act as a facilitator to get the work published as he intended and I hope that the components I’ve added, including the introduction, essays, and chronology, are additions that he would have approved of. But these additions also serve the reader and help illuminate Gedney’s process, which I hope will inspire other artists in the future.
CK: The framework of the book, the image selection, sequence, book dimensions – all of these things are Gedney’s decisions. When creating a book like that, with all these decisions already in place, how does that affect any decision you make for it going forward as editor?
LM: I was excited about the project from the beginning, but I don’t want to downplay the responsibility I felt either. At times I worried that I hadn’t done enough to preserve all of Gedney’s decisions. But I didn’t want to be too clinical or rigid either by confining the book to Gedney’s 1969 vision of it. Over fifty years have passed and elements like the essays were needed to contextualize the overall project and the origin of the book from Gedney’s archive.
Overall, my methodology as editor was to preserve as many of Gedney’s decisions as possible. And when his decisions weren’t clear I made some speculations based on the materials he left behind in the archive. But there were also practical decisions to address too and changes I needed to make to address contemporary printing practices for example. Probably the biggest change to the actual format or design of A Time of Youth is that the book is now 9”x9” and and Gedney’s design was 8”x8”.
CK: Oh no, come on Lisa! (laughs)
LM: That was a big deal! (laughs) And that was something that me and Amy Ruth Buchanan (the book designer at Duke University Press) were sensitive to. I’m so thankful for her commitment and attentiveness to the original material. I think some designers or publishers wouldn’t readily understand the importance of preserving an artist’s decisions. And everyone at the Press was on board with that concept from the beginning, so I didn’t have to convince anyone.
So in the end, we felt like adding an inch to the overall dimension of the book wasn’t too far of a deviation because it still preserved the relatively small-scale of the book. It’s still at a size that you can hold in your hands comfortably and that intimacy was something I knew was important. Gedney’s book maquettes were often quite small; they feel like they’re meant to be held, and held close.
Probably the bigger deviation is the addition of the essays. Philip Gefter’s beautiful essay, contextualizes Gedney’s work within photo history. My essays provide context for Gedney’s working process and his overall intentions as an artist. Adding these texts was a leap but I also feel like it would have been a missed opportunity to put this work into the world without providing context for the project.
CK: While we’re on the topic of Gedney’s vision, do you have favorite diptychs or spreads? I’d like to hear a little bit of the politics of how you felt the whole sequence fit together or whether you agree or disagree. Because an artist has one vision of their work but we, as artists, are also curators and editors of other people’s work.
LM: You know, that’s a great question because it never even occurred to me to touch his sequence at all because I consider that such intellectual property. We both know as photographers that you can have thousands of images but the edit of images you put together in a specific order, that’s what makes the work; the editing is the art as much as the photographs themselves. It’s in the sequence that the photographer commits to a point of view or constructs a narrative. So that’s the reason why it never even entered my mind whether I agreed or disagreed with Gedney’s sequence, I just fully accepted it.
In terms of my favorite spread, this is the spread that launched the ship of A Time of Youth for me [See spread above]. Oh, I just love it so much. There are two portraits of two couples on opposite pages. In each image the two people are entwined, obscuring and merging into one another. Where does one person end, and where does the other begin? Particularly in the image on the right, the woman is sometimes seen much later than the man; there are arms around him and we kind of see her peeking over his shoulder but making direct eye contact. And you see how the couple on the left are looking inward, and the man on the right is looking out of the frame. There are all kinds of deliberate juxtapositions in the individual spreads, and in the seven chapters; there are visual themes or metaphors that carry through the whole book. So that’s one particular favorite of mine.
CK: I appreciate how much of Gedney’s own language about the book and the sequence are included. Gedney is quoted as saying, “I’m telling a story with characters that reappear and scenes that are repeated,” and that the book was “an attempt at visual literature modeled after the novel form.”
LM: That quote was important to me too. Even though these photographs can stand on their own without text, his concept for how they go together is significant. That’s part of the beauty and potential of photo books, right? That you can bind these otherwise disparate moments together and tell a story – whether that’s a linear narrative or more of a poetic or meditative one.
CK: Can you talk about the qualities of how a photo book can allow for this kind of storytelling?
LM: A photographer can tell a story through a succession or sequence of images. That’s so common to us now in the photo world and photo education; it’s a secret but not-so-secret language that photographers learn and relate to each other, but there’s not actually a lot written about it. You have to train yourself to read images. You can look at and respond to the formal elements in any picture. But if you spend time with a group of photographs, you start to analyze how images work together, how meaning accumulates, and how certain visual elements recur and become themes. If you do that as a reader, you can start to understand at least part of Gedney’s story, or you can project your own.
I don’t think many photographers were thinking about sequencing in this way in the 1960s. Most photographers or editors working towards a photobook today are consciously thinking about storytelling through image sequences. But as I say in my afterward in the book, there isn’t evidence of many people at all in the past or present who are explicitly writing out and sharing their intentions for their sequence as Gedney did.
CK: What do hope students, artists, and others will take away from the publication A Time of Youth, and Gedney’s archive broadly?
LM: At this point in time, I think it’s fair to say that persistent publication of an artists’ work serves to build their legacy over time. There’s no denying that the more work that you have published and accessible in the world, the more chances there are for others to encounter it.
So, one of my goals for the book is that it ultimately leads artists and scholars back to the breadth of Gedney’s work in the archives at Duke, which will help build Gedney’s legacy further. I also hope that A Time of Youth will serve to establish Gedney’s achievement as a book artist. And lastly, I hope that the book continues to generate opportunities for Gedney’s work to circulate in the wider world, either through exhibitions or future publications.
William Gedney (1932-1989) grew-up in upstate New York and then moved to Manhattan at the age of nineteen to attend the Pratt Institute. It was there that he discovered his interest in photography. In 1955 he graduated and worked at Condé Nast for two years before leaving to pursue his own work. During the mid-1960s through the 1970s, Gedney was awarded four major art grants including Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships. The first of these made possible a cross-country trip through the Midwest to California. He settled in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where he photographed the drifters passing through this communal neighborhood. Shortly thereafter, Gedney was offered positions teaching photography at both Pratt and Cooper Union. He remained a member of the faculty at both schools for the rest of his working life. A few months after he began teaching, he received his Fulbright grant and left on his first of several trips to India, which had a lasting effect on him. Gedney died of AIDS in 1989. He asked that after his death his books and cameras be given to one of India’s institutions of learning. His brother, Richard Gedney, donated them to the Chitrabani Art College in Calcutta. His photographs and notebooks were given by Lee Friedlander and Richard Gedney to the Archive of Documentary Arts in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Lisa McCarty (MFAEDA ’13) is Assistant Professor of Photography at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and former Curator for the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. She is also a photographer, curator, and writer. She sat down recently with Cassandra Klos, (MFAEDA ’20) photographer and curatorial assistant for the Archive of Documentary Arts, to talk about the new monograph by William Gedney, A Time of Youth: San Francisco 1966-1967, which McCarty edited.
A Time of Youth: San Francisco 1966-1967 by William Gedney is available now through Duke University Press
Gedney’s work can also be seen (virtually) at Howard Greenberg Gallery
Photographs included in this piece are copyright William Gedney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. The materials included are provided by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library for the purposes of research, teaching, private study, or general interest. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/