PHOTOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM GEDNEY | AN AMERICAN ARCHIVE, KENTUCKY

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Man driving car and drinking can of beer. Kentucky, 1972. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Chances are, if you’re reading this you’re like me– isolated from the starkness and poverty represented in William Gedney’s haunting, honest images of Kentucky life taken back in 1964 & 1972.  We get wrapped up in our own comfortable little coccoon and forget that there’s a world out there, even today, without the internet, shopping malls, and Starbucks.  Driving across this great country years ago, and seeing parts of the rural south with my own eyes exposed me to a way of life in the outskirts of America that I was largely ignorant of.  Most of us have a whole lot to be thankful for, like the simple conveniences and access that we overlook everyday.

From the mid 1950s through the early 1980s, William Gedney (1932-1989) photographed throughout the United States (as well as India, and Europe). From street scenes outside his Brooklyn apartment, to the daily chores of unemployed coal miners, and the indolent lifestyle of hippies in Haight-Ashbury– Gedney recorded the lives of others with remarkable clarity and poignancy. These photographs (along with his notebooks and writings), illuminate the vision of an intensely private man who, as a writer and photographer, revealed the lives of others with striking sensitivity.

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Boy covered by dirt smoking cigarette with one hand, holding can of tobacco in other. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Boy standing on washtub and drinking by kitchen sink. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Boy rolling a cigarette. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Teenage boy with cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Teenage boy rolling a cigarette. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Two girls with dirty clothes holding hands. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Girl sitting on windowsill. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Young Girl. Kentucky, 1964. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Young man without shirt, leaning back in chair against porch. Kentucky, 1972. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Young man on motorcycle. Kentucky, 1972. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Man holding rifle. Kentucky, 1972. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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Man looking down the barrel of a rifle. Kentucky, 19672. William Gedney Photographs and Writings Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney/

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24 thoughts on “PHOTOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM GEDNEY | AN AMERICAN ARCHIVE, KENTUCKY

  1. My son is about the same age as that little guy smoking the cigarette. I just want to go give him a bath, some fresh clothes and a few transformers or star wars men to play with.

  2. I represent the first generation of my family that weren’t sharecroppers, so I know that life well. It may make you sad to see it, but those folks are tougher, happier, and, in some ways, wealthier than most people will ever know. Poverty in America is extremely tough, but it’s unique because we’ve got style and grace. Only Americans can be poverty-stricken and it still looks like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad.

    By the way, I’m fairly new to your blog and I have to say that it’s my favorite. I’m a Black man in his 40′s who loves classic style and history. My man, you’ve got IT in spades.

  3. I want to guess that these pictures were taken in Eastern Kentucky, the very same area President Clinton (when he was still in office) came to and compared to a 3rd world country. There was a case in Daniel Boone National Forest a little while ago where a census worker was hung from a tree and the word “fed” scrawled across his chest, everyone assumes he stumbled on a pot farm when he was traveling through. It’s definitely a different world in Appalachia, and I only live 2 hours away in Central Kentucky.

    • I grew up in the Daniel Boone National Forest, and it will haunt me forever. Not a bad thing, but it is a dark, beautiful, step out of time. Not for the faint of heart.
      Kentucky, especially eastern Kentucky, is another world. These photos are the tip of the iceberg. Thank you for recognizing such other worldly geography.

    • Turns out it was a suicide set up for insurance purposes…guy was in a tough situation I guess and needed money for his family or something. I grew up in Murray, KY a small college town in West, KY a world away.

  4. My grandmother has told me many times how looking back they really had no idea they were poor, that is just how things were. The reality was that they were sharecroppers as well. My grandparents house was mostly a shack, newspapers covered the walls and the kitchen resembled the one that little boy is in. An old wood burning stove for heat in the winter. The meals were delicious though. I complained when they finally moved onto my uncles place because they no longer had a milk cow and the potato soup from pasturized milk just wasn’t the same.

  5. I just discovered TSY yesterday when I was looking up “The Bikeriders” by Danny Lyon on Google. I must say, I love this website, and keep up the good work! I live in central Kentucky (Georgetown/Lexington area), so I don’t live in these conditions, but I have witnessed scenes like this first hand. While to “normal” people, this would be a heart breaking scene, I have to agree with Marcus- for the most part, these people are happy and are wealthy in ways that money could never buy. I think all of America could take a valuable lesson from the people of the rural, eastern area of the country (Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.).

  6. Love your blog. Reminds me of a few years ago in undergrad when I’d go in to the library and read Life magazines from the 30′s and 40′s. Maybe you could do a piece on the mega un-PC (by today’s standards) propaganda ads against the axis that ran back then?

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  8. Also, I once tried to look up on google without much success the story about a photographer shot by a landlord of a sharecropper for taking photos in KY of some shotgun shacks.

    • That was Hugh O’Connor, 1967. See the excellent film “A Stranger with a Camera” from Appalshop.

  9. Wm Gedney knew how to shoot; these are brilliant photographs. Sally Mann and Bruce Weber, among others, came from this tradition. I’ve seen no better, yet I’ve never heard of Mr. Gedney. JT, I’m in your debt!

  10. Wonderful photos. Photos of any rural poor look much the same though, whether they’re Kentuckians or Pahstun tribesmen or Maasai herders. And this is how we would all look if things were just slightly different. We’re seeing the last gasp of Appalachian culture before it fell into indolent decadence. Photos of these children’s grandparents would have found them clean and not in the least pitiable. Their clothes would have been old but tirelessly mended. These kids are simply neglected, and you can find that in any urban housing project in the country. And you’ll find them 100 years from now, too.

  11. Yo ! Amazing photos, amazing times, especialy for me and my Soviet childhood. Thank’s a lot.

  12. That’s more stuff from what some naive people call ‘the good old days’.My dad told me a long time ago that they never really existed.Amen.

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