The Geist in William Gedney’s Kentucky Photographs

By Cynthia Cruz

September 20, 2019

William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Man lies his head asleep on woman’s lap who is sitting on car seats which have been removed from a vehicle, 1972.

In my mind, I hear his voice, deep and articulate. After some time, I could also hear the silence, what was held back, hints of an unreachable place.

In the photographs, this tension is part of their power—the cup half-empty. And the boy revealing what the heart might want—and want to hide.

                                                            —Margaret Sartor

The controlled burn of William Gedney’s restrained, libidinal energy fueled his photographs, illuminating and animating not only his work but also the subjects he chose to represent. In particular, Gedney’s photographs of two families living in Eastern Kentucky, a series he worked on during visits to the region in 1964 and 1972, exemplify this incredible compression. In the summer of 1964, Gedney traveled to the Blue Diamond Mining Camp in Leatherwood, Kentucky where he first stayed with the Couch family. Eventually, he moved on to live with a second family, the Cornetts, who he then stayed with again in 1972. Both Boyd Couch and Willie Cornett, the fathers and breadwinners of both families, had recently lost their mining jobs in 1964, rendering their situations precarious. The photographs capture the faces and bodies of the various family members stranded at their homes. In one photograph, a young woman, her eyes closed, sprawls across the hood of a car; in another, a shirtless man, his eyes also closed, rests in the lap of a woman. One of her hands threads his hair, and she caresses his face with the other. The photos are sensual, visceral. What remains outside the frame of the photographs is evidence of their previous lives, when the men were working and had the means to fix the cars and feed their families.

Though it is not entirely clear what impelled Gedney to first travel to Kentucky, it’s possible his desire had its origins in his own upbringing. Gedney (1932-1989) grew up on a farm in upstate New York and often returned there to visit and photograph his family. He also shared with the Couch and Cornett families a belief in the value of character and reserve, of keeping one’s business to oneself. Gedney was an intensely private man, preferring to remain unseen—invisible—in both his life and work. As photographer and writer Margaret Sartor observes in her essay “What Was True,” in the monogram, What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney, “William Gedney distanced himself, walled off his private existence and lived in a sort of retreat.” Indeed, what makes Gedney’s Kentucky photographs so powerful is the aspect of what is kept back, what is left unsaid. His deliberate omissions press up against the work as a kind of negation, an energy force that paradoxically animates and informs.

William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library,Three girls in kitchen, 1964.

Gedney kept notebooks he made by hand. A number of these notebooks are filled with notes on how to make notebooks. He also copied down the words of other artists and writers, like in an entry from 1985, where he quoted English landscape writer Nan Fairbrother. “The shapes we make for ourselves are geometrical, and the background of civilized life is more or less rectangular. Our rooms and houses are arrangements of cubes, our doors and windows, furniture and rugs, books and boxes—all their angles are right angles and their sides are straight.” Gedney preferred boxes and squares, controlled units of space where he could erase and negate his presence. In both photographs and notebooks, Gedney folded himself into himself, remaining an enigma, a mystery, a mere trace.

William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Miscellaneous Writings pp.79-80.

By writing these words into his notebooks, the words became internalized inside the “box” of his own mind and body. Curator John Szarkowski describes Gedney as “inwardly directed,” and “self-sufficient.” And yet as photography historian Gilles Mora writes,

Gedney’s notebooks often touch on the psychological impossibility of being self-sufficient, of seizing, through discipline and a balanced way of life, opportunities to succeed as a photographer. He seems to have suffered from a crippling lack of self-restraint, choosing immediate gratification—particularly of a sexual nature, now known to have experienced clandestinely, since he hid his homosexuality until the end—over the self-discipline he deemed necessary for his own artistic fulfillment, often perceiving himself as a failure.

Energy that one believes must be shut down, made silent, is a fire that cannot be put out. It informs one’s life and work and, through self-discipline, one may feel as if they are able to master this insatiability. But attempts at controlling energy often become just one more constraint that, rather than sating, only serve to make desire smolder.

This energy that arouses our minds and bodies and thus our lives corresponds to what philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel calls Geist. In Phänomenologie des Geistes or The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807) Hegel writes of Geist as an animating force that guides us. The word Geist is multivalent and in English can mean, among other things: “ghost,” “spirit,” “mind,” and “intellect.” Geist or the libidinal (whatever it is we want to call it) makes Gedney’s Kentucky work so potent. The photographs themselves are like vitrines or dioramas: men, women, and children appear trapped inside the box of the photo frame. The subjects in the Kentucky photographs are fixed inside the square space of the frame in the same way they are quite literally fixed in the square spaces of their home and small yards. The girl lying on the square hood of an abandoned car; figures sitting inside the square space of the front porch; a young couple at rest upon the rectangular of a car seat excised from the automobile and jettisoned in the square of a front yard. Over and over, bodies appear inside contained dioramas.

William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Kentucky, 1972.
William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Kentucky, 1972, Bill Cornett, Jr. under car.

Being unable to move, being repressed, creates an energy, what you see in locked facilities and incarcerating institutions: men and women in such places frequently go mad with frenzy, pacing, chain smoking, sometimes turning to suicide as a means to escape this relentless desire to move. But Gedney, of course, was free. He wasn’t locked or kept in any space. Yet, he was, in a sense, his own captor: holding himself back, making himself invisible. But it was this very force, this intense compression that drove him to Kentucky allowed him to truly see the Cornett and Couch families not as caricatures or stereotypes, but as real human beings. And this compression, this aspect that resulted in his loneliness and alienation is also the very force that fills and illuminates his photographs. He was able to transform and transmit his secrets and mysteries, his private life that he could not share, into tremendous power that emanates his images, and illuminates them from within. As Gedney wrote in a notebook in 1972, “It seems to me that images were first made to conjure up the unseen (not just the absent), to make visually present the mysterious forces that ruled one’s life in order to gain control over them and if not that, at least to pay them homage.”

Work by, or through, negation—this is what I’d call Gedney’s gift. “Exactitude is not truth,” he wrote in another notebook from 1984, transcribing Henri Matisse’s words. He continued with the painter’s lines, “Thus there is an inherent truth which must be disengaged from the outward appearance of the object to be represented. This is the only truth that matters.” Gedney’s strenuous attempt at holding back, at pushing down, only made his work stronger, more volatile. He elucidated the overwhelming intensity that filled the bodies of his subjects, and through his own self-erasure, exposed their Geist.

Cynthia Cruz is the author of five collections of poems. Her sixth collection of poems, Guidebooks For The Dead, is forthcoming in 2020. Her first collection of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, was published April of 2019. Cruz teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.


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