RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: 12 years ago, when he died, William Gedney was little-known beyond a small group of New York photographers and museum curators. A reticent man, he had lived alone most of his life. Self-effacing, he spent much of his time in public hidden behind a camera, looking at us. All this winter and spring at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, there is a survey, the first ever assembled, of William Gedney's America. His is a nation of averted eyes, and broken automobiles, and restlessness, a place Edward Hopper would recognize, but so, also, Walt Whitman.
Gedney was born in 1932 in Albany. At 19 he had gone off to New York with his camera. From the window of his Brooklyn cold-water apartment for over 20 years, he took a beautiful series of photographs of Myrtle Avenue below. In his notebooks Gedney writes that what interests him about street life, any street, was the way we strangers pass unaware of each other, each leading our separate lives in separate motions, yet sharing the same time and space.
Look, in a crowded food joint on Coney Island, each person alone in his thoughts, it is the photographer's task to show us in relationship to one another to render America as a composition. My favorite Gedney photograph is this: Three girls peeling potatoes in a small kitchen in eastern Kentucky. Each looks in a slightly different direction, but their bodies imitate one another as in a dance or a dream, each girl standing on one leg. They remind me of young birds, waiting for the wind.
What is it in us that keeps us alone? Everywhere Gedney senses a restlessness: The young man on a motorcycle, another standing at an open door, a street corner full of drifters. Among the miners of Kentucky's hill country, for the men especially, the second-hand car becomes the living room of their lives and the promise of escape, even when there are no tires and the oil leaks. One wonders about Gedney, the outsider, taking this photo. The half-naked men he watches are not even looking at his camera, so oblivious are they of him, so deep are they within their own thoughts. Maybe because Gedney often felt himself outside the circle of intimacy, faces matter less to him than backs and arms and legs and hands. What astonishes us about the miners is how their flesh-- a shoulder, a hand-- appears against chrome or rubber.
In those same years that he visited Kentucky, Gedney drove several thousand miles to the other side of America to the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. Not such a long distance, after all, separated the Kentucky miners from the hippies of California. For in California, Gedney found young Americans living intensely close lives, tribal as any hill- country miners, though many of these exiles from middle class suburbs did not know each other very well and often invented the names for themselves before moving on.
He wrote-- all of his life Gedney wrote, was a remarkably good writer, a poet, really, reflecting in his notebooks upon what his eye saw-- he wrote about the hippies of California, their need to search in forbidden places, but always coming back to the self alone. On his desk, Gedney kept a quotation from Charles Dickens, a line about how every human being is constituted to be a profound mystery and secret to every other, "a solemn consideration," Charles Dickens wrote, "whenever I enter a great city at night." Gedney was struck by how alone people seem asleep. He prowled at tender night, he watched America when our windows were dark. While we slept, he brooded over the light of shadows, the aching beauty that settles over a South Dakota street.
At 56, William Gedney died of AIDS. Friends found his small rooms filled with boxes and boxes of notebooks, and negatives of an America no one had seen.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.