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July 06, 2004

Gedney-Wool at PS1, and Reconsidering Gedney Further Online

An article in last weekend's New York Times reviewed the current exhibition "Into the Night", at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center, featuring the nocturnal photographs of William Gedney and painter Christopher Wool. Sounds like a welcome and interesting pairing of contrasts: Gedney's images in the exhibition come from a prolific stash of night photographs taken around New York City, which he had intended to assemble for a photographic essay, "The Single Future of the Night" (which was never completed), while Wool's images come from a collection of 35mm photographs also taken in New York (and released as a book, "East Broadway Breakdown").


William Gedney Night image

As the Times article indicates, Gedney's photographs are meticulously composed and captured nightscapes, often with a strong sense of light and mood remniscent of Edward Hopper, while Wool's photographs are much more harsh and slapdash in feel. It's difficult to get more than a superficial idea of the contrasts based on the online evidence, though it seems clear that the styles are different enough that it would take a particularly thoughtful culling of each imagemaker's output to create a compelling exhibition. Gedney has a very substantial collection of work available online, while Wool's photographic work is more spotty online -- the best I've been able to find (night photographs and assorted Polaroids and paintings) is here.

Gedney is particularly interesting to me -- he's had exhibitions, but is generally considered an overlooked artist and sort of a "photographer's photographer"...admired by luminaries like Friedlander and Arbus, but not heavily published (nor exhibited much while he was alive), and little known even among photography enthusiasts. The online collection managed by Duke University is almost too much of a good thing -- with nearly 5000 images organized in a very straightforward way by project, it is difficult for the casual viewer to appreciate just how good his understated and very thoughtful photography is.

For example, the night photography that is highlighted in the PS1 exhibition is part of a "Miscellaneous" grouping that features 23 pages of 16 thumbnails apiece...another example, the India portfolio has 69 (!) pages of thumbnails. It appears that the Duke archive has scanned almost every conceivable photograph in, even when the images are very similar variations on the same scene...I wish there had been more pruning, though I understand that a university archive probably aims more for completeness and searchability of archives, rather than on a more focused presentation of the best of specific projects.

The best places to get a good introduction to Gedney's work are here (probably the best quality images online) and a small portfolio of his Kentucky images here. If those links whet your appetite, then it's worthwhile to rummage through the Duke archive, as there are some amazing images within the substantial collections of images in the New York, San Francisco, and Europe projects.


Gedney image, from Europe portfolio

I really liked a lot of the candid street and documentary work done around Europe and New York, though my favorite of all his projects is probably his work in Eastern Kentucky -- even though there are a huge number of images, I found myself navigating through a large number of the thumbnails, because there was a quiet warmth and directness present in every image...the relatively flat tonality keeps the eye focused on the people, the surroundings, the light...all presented very directly but largely without judgement (not easy to do given the nature of the conditions). Gedney has an eye for composition and the decisive moment, but I'm also impressed by his eye for the bonds between people -- whether it's in his studies of Kentucky families, or the images of San Francisco hippies in the 1960s, he seems particularly attuned to couples and friends and their rituals. As he put it so well in quoting Bartok in one of his journals:

"What matters most of all, is to penetrate into the pulsing life of the people themselves, to become imbued with their way of living, and to see their faces when they sing at their weddings, harvests and funerals…"


Gedney image, from Kentucky portfolio


Gedney image, from San Francisco portfolio

Some interesting writing about Gedney can be found online in a book review here, a review of a 2000 San Francisco exhibition, and a review of an exhibition at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.

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i love these their so different i like them so much keep up the good work

Posted by: hayley at May 20, 2007 1:19:24 AM