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FOCUS Photography Festival
Co-curated by Shanay Jhaveri, Margaret Sartor and Devika Singh
Widely acclaimed in the photography milieu, William Gedney (1932-1989) is one of the key figures of American black and white street photography whose works deserves to be brought to the attention of a larger, international public. This is especially so for the in-depth work he carried out in India. Gedney’s photographs of India were taken over two extensive stays, as a Fulbright scholar from 1969 to 1971 and on his return to India ten years later. During his first trip, Gedney spent about a year and a half in Benares, living with a local family, while his second stay focused on the city of Calcutta. Unlike many foreign photographers who travelled to India in these decades, Gedney drew an intimate portrait of the people he encountered. This body of work was also particularly dear to Gedney, who prepared an as yet unpublished dummy of his night photographs of Benares. Following Gedney’s wishes that these be donated to an Indian institution, his books and cameras are housed at Chitrabani in Kolkata, while his archives and photographs are preserved at Duke University.
Including over 40 works, the exhibition at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery is the first museum presentation focusing exclusively on William Gedney’s photographs of India. The show represents a major display of his work since his retrospective at SFMoMA which coincided with the publication of What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (W.W. Norton, 2000) edited by Margaret Sartor. William Gedney grew up in the state of New York and moved to New York City to study at the Pratt Institute (later in his career Gedney would become a member of its faculty, in addition to teaching at Cooper Union in New York). In 1964, Gedney embarked on a major personal project centred on a coal-mining town of Kentucky where he developed a close, multi-year relation with a local family.
After receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, Gedney took a cross-country trip to California where he decided to focus on the drifters of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. In 1968, before Gedney’s first trip to India, John Szarkowski curated the exhibition Eastern Kentucky and San Francisco: Photographs by Gedney at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Commenting on Gedney’s work, Szarkowski stated: ‘His pictures reward us with real knowledge of the lives of specific people. Being a good witness he does not attempt to direct our verdict concerning the quality of these lives. He does allow us to see that they are in many ways much like our own’. This comment directs our attention to the attentive gaze that Gedney also deployed in India. Striking friendships with photographers Lee Friedlander and Raghubir Singh, he nonetheless remained an isolated figure whose depth and significance for the history of photography in India this exhibition brings to light.
Presented in collaboration with the Duke University Libraries.