The definition of street photography has become very restrictive over the past decade. This was not always the case. Many photographers in the 20th century made “street photography”, but did not always consider themselves street photographers. By this I mean they made candid photography, often in l’espace public, but refrained from labeling their work. Arguably, candid photography has existed since the very beginning of the photography itself and certainly since the invention of the Leica format (35mm film). One of these 20th century photographers that we might view through the lens of street photography is William Gedney. Gedney (1932-1989) was one of the photographers responsible for intentionally blurring the lines between street and documentary – simultaneously raising the reputation of both in the process. Gedney was a self-taught photographer and it shows in all the best ways, as he is clearly unencumbered by any notion of what the mid-century lens should capture. That is, he did not merely re-present white Western existence.
In this retrospective volume Gedney’s work, spanning three decades, is offered up for our consideration. All monochrome, all poignant, Gedney’s photographs seek to illuminate those who are underappreciated, hidden, and stereotyped by society. The chapter on the 1970s gay pride parades, for example, is considerably ahead of its time in its uncensored look into the that community. While, ultimately too brief, the chapter is an early and significant opening toward a more mainstream understanding of sexual diversity. I just wish the editors of this volume had taken more care in presenting this work in greater depth. The chapter feels underappreciated by the editors, a fact that ultimately undermines Gedney’s lifelong photographic struggle. Ironic, isn’t it? Gedney’s quest is still, clearly, underway. So it goes. While writing about my frustrations with this volume, I’d also be remiss not to mention that it sometimes feels more like a textbook than a photobook. This is likely due to the abundance of text that accompanies – sometimes obtrusively – the photographic works.
Although trendy in the past decade or so, Gedney was in India long before most of the rest of us – hence the importance of his work and vision. His photos from those trips provide the viewer with an intimate and subtle view of racial and cultural diversity. India through Gedney’s lens is not just some far off exotic place; India, for Gedney, is anyplace and yet also categorically India. Put another way, these photographs show us the common humanity that spans the globe and the human race more generally, but also do great justice in service to promoting Indian culture abroad, especially in America. Indeed, there can be little doubt that Gedney’s overall project was one intimately bound up in the human condition in all of its manifestations. He wanted us to see our commonalities in our differences, a sentiment that has become more widely desired even if still largely elusive.
William Gedney believed that photography could be as poignant as literature in expressing the human condition – in helping us, his viewers, in our quests to understand our world. In some way, Gedney was an early mentor to those like Anders Petersen, whether they are aware of his influence or not. Gedney was one of the earliest artists to pick up a camera in a quest to bring a wider swath of society into the mainstream majority’s consciousness. And this he does well. We surely all owe a debt to William Gedney, whether we are a member of a minority class, or just someone seeking to understand those around us with more authenticity, sincerity, and compassion. Gedney’s retrospective collection from the University of Texas Press is a worthwhile acquisition for anyone attempting to understand photography’s greater psychosocial impact. This book is a fierce reminder in an age of ephemerial photographic ubiquity that, ultimately, the lens is more powerful than we can imagine. Gedney’s collection is a call to everyone with a camera to step up and make a difference – to live up to the privilege of being able to capture a moment in time.