Photographer William Gedney made these pictures of Kentucky mining families in 1964 and 1972. These images, only a few of many more, are from the Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, which provides the following description:
"William Gedney made two trips to eastern Kentucky. In the summer of 1964, he traveled to the Blue Diamond Mining Camp in Leatherwood, Kentucky and stayed for awhile at the home of Boyd Couch, head of the local United Mine Workers Union. Then Gedney met Willie Cornett, who was recently laid off from the mines, his wife Vivian, and their twelve children. He soon moved in with the Cornett family, staying with them for eleven days. Twenty-two of the photographs from Gedney's 1964 visit to Kentucky were included in his one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (December 1968 through March 1969). Gedney corresponded with the Cornetts over many years, and finally returned to Kentucky to visit and photograph the family again in 1972."
Photographer Roger May, who was born and raised in Appalachia writes eloquently about Gedney’s work, which I am happily discovering for the very first time (thanks to my friend Susan). Here are some excerpts from Roger May’s thoughts on Gedney and his work:
“His work resonates with me on a number of different levels, but I suppose I'm most impacted by how he chose to look at, to see Appalachia. It wasn't a one-off way of seeing for him, for he brought that same quietness, stillness, and earnestness to other parts of the world: New York, India, San Francisco. The consistency is appreciated. The grace with which we made note of moments he wanted to remember, wanted to share, needed to share.
I'm fascinated by his eastern Kentucky photographs. Try as I may, I haven't been able to figure out why he chose Appalachia to make photographs, but I'm so very glad he did. Nowhere can I find the reason that led him to Perry County, Kentucky. In the early 1960's, Appalachia saw a flood of photographers, news crews and filmmakers (think Charles Kuralt's Christmas in Appalachia circa 1964) come into the hills and hollers as part of the War on Poverty campaign. By and large, they formed a disparaging visual narrative of the place I was born and raised. Yet somehow, he transcended that tendency and instead made photographs of grace, beauty, and simple existence all the while capturing the challenging environs of those he photographed. There must've been something about his spirit that caused him to see what others did not, would not, perhaps could not.
His journal writing (1964) reveals a keen insight into some of the region's problems: ‘The region is rugged and isolated, the people are trapped in a circle of poverty, bad schools, corrupt politics and unskilled labor etc. Though I do not consider myself a 'social-problem' photographer, I hope something of this part of America and its people is conveyed to you."
Gedney's Appalachia work is refreshing to me because it feels so incredibly real. Margaret Sartor, a photographer, writer, and teacher at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, noted that, ‘We keep looking because it (Gedney's work) feels so genuine.’ I couldn't agree more. His unassuming presence allowed him to capture moments so obviously absent from most of the work I've seen from Appalachia, that one has to wonder why so few photographs like this exist. Certainly at the time he was photographing in Appalachia, there was a stream of imagery coming out of there that I feel shaped the way we look at Appalachia today. For me, Gedney chose to see and show the deeper humanity of my home. How he saw the world, my world, challenges me to be truer, to be more authentic when I work.
William Gedney died on June 23, 1989 at 56. In his lifetime, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for photography (1966-67), a Fulbright Fellowship for photography in India (1969-71), a National Endowment for the Arts grant in photography (1975-76), and several other grants and fellowships. Four years after his death, in 1993, Duke University became the repository for Gedney's work. Margaret Sartor was approached by the Rubenstein Library and asked to put together an exhibit of Gedney's work. In 2000, she and Geoff Dyer coedited What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney.
Gedney's work always commands my attention. It isn't forceful, overbearing, or gimmicky. He presents grace, beauty and humanity in a people often marginalized and dismissed. These are things that are important to me, qualities he captured about the people and place that means so much to me. He didn't shy away from poverty or hard times, instead he chose not to make it the focus of his work. Because of that, we get to see something so few who make photographs in Appalachia can show us. By pressing in close enough, quietly enough, in the words of Thomas Roma, he captured the beauty of our sameness.” - Roger May