How do Indian streets differ from American streets?” photographer William Gedney posed this question to himself in his journal entry during his stay in India from 1969 to 1971. He was in the country on a Fulbright scholarship and had decided to station himself in Varanasi, where he stayed with a local family. In the 14 months that he spent in the city, the American captured life as it unfolded in the ghats or in the narrow, winding lanes. Of the hundreds of photographs that Gedney took during this period and, 10 years later, in Kolkata, over 40 are on display in the exhibition ‘Gedney in India’ at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya.
His journal notes are full of reflections on the people he met; they reveal a mind that is not only curious and analytical, but also has a lyrical bent. “Your eye is led from one thing to another. Before it can rest your sight must move on. The movement pulls you. The crowds on all sides, wagons, bicycles, vendors, cars, cattle, a thousand shops, the curbs lined with goods, lumber carried across the street, horns blowing, color dashes in front of you, each street a tunnel of movement, of frenzy,” he wrote when he first arrived in the country in 1969.
This lyricism pervades Gedney’s photographs as well. Even when he captured rituals and traditions such as Holi and Durga Puja, these were not the true subjects of his photographs. “He was captivated by the Indian engagement with the public and the private. In most of the US, people retreat indoors once it gets dark. The lines between private and public spaces are very clear. In India, however, you have people sleeping or bathing outside. It was this graceful choreography of bodies engaging with public and private spaces that he was able to get,” says Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator for South Asian art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who has curated the show along with curator and art historian Devika Singh and photographer Margaret Sartor.
A man in a loincloth washes himself at the river, while people stride past him; a leg hangs over a wall, while the body it is attached to is fast asleep on the other side; two men sit with their heads close in conversation, against a painted wall; sleeping bodies lie huddled together on the ghats at night. Gedney wasn’t after the sensational in a country struggling to be a modern democracy, while remaining shackled by tradition and poverty. He was unlike others who came to India in the years after Independence. Think, for instance, of Mary Ellen Mark’s ‘Falkland Road’ photographs of sex workers in Mumbai, or Steve McCurry’s colour-saturated images of “exotic” India. “The main difference (between these photographers and Gedney) is Gedney’s emphasis on the complexity of the body and his attention to gesture. He singles out individuals and draws attentive and sensual portraits of them,” says Singh.
This compassionate gaze was characteristic of Gedney’s work. He had graduated from Pratt Institute in 1955 with a BFA in graphic design, but it was while working at Conde Nast as a layout artist that he developed his passion for photography. He quit his job in 1957, citing the need to pursue his “personal” work, and began freelancing. He worked on photographs of Brooklyn, where he lived, as well as a series of photographs of his grandparents on their farm in Norton Hill, New York. This series — ‘The Farm’ — is, perhaps, the earliest indication of his style: quietly staying in the periphery of his subjects’ lives, and doing so with grace and empathy. In 1964 and 1972, he travelled to Kentucky, where he stayed with the Cornett family and produced work that is now considered significant in American photography. With 12 children and a low income — the father of the family had been recently laid off — the Cornetts were miserably poor, but the photographs that Gedney took of them and the mining community they were a part of, are elevated by the grace and dignity his camera recognises in them. It was these photographs, along with ‘The Farm’, that won Gedney the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1966. The fellowship resulted in another important body of work, this time documenting the hippie culture in San Francisco. In his characteristically unobtrusive way, Gedney was able to capture intimate portraits of people as they slept, talked, played the guitar or smoked. “At the deepest level, all of his work is connected by Gedney’s essential approach, the underlying search — that is, his ongoing appreciation of and fascination for the beauty and elegance of the human figure as observed in everyday life, the search for belonging and connectedness, the inevitable solitariness of the individual life,” says Sartor, who teaches at Duke University, where all of Gedney’s enormous archives are housed.
Outside of a small group of photographers and curators in New York, Gedney’s work was little known. He had only one solo show during his lifetime, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, from December 1968 to March 1969. He never even managed to get any of his meticulously planned book projects published. Part of this could be due to Gedney’s own reclusiveness, and part of this was bad luck — for instance, a series of photographs of American composers that he had been working on since 1965 failed to be published on schedule in 1969 because the writer did not deliver the text. Gedney did not receive notification of the cancellation of the book until as late as 1975.
There was, however, no denying the distinct sensitivity in his work, which was recognised by contemporaries such as Raghubir Singh, Diane Arbus, John Szarkowski and Lee Friedlander. It was Friedlander, in fact, who led a posthumous revival of his friend’s work. He had inherited all of Gedney’s photographs and writings upon the latter’s death in 1989 (he was 56), and he ensured that the archives found a home at Duke University.
Gedney’s India work remain largely unknown and were never publicly shown, apart from some photographs which were included in the 1997 exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ‘India: A Celebration of Independence’. This makes the show in Mumbai the first major presentation focusing exclusively on his India photographs. “He cared deeply about this particular body of work and it is the one to which he devoted the most time in the field,” says Sartor. “He was working towards a major exhibition and, no doubt, hoped for a book to be published, but he became ill before he was able to make that happen.”
Gedney in India at JNAF is a part of Mumbai’s FOCUS Photography Festival 2017