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William Gedney featured in the Wall Street Journal's On Photography

William Gedney’s time has come; on a recent evening, all the chairs in the Greenberg Gallery were taken and people were standing out to the hallway to hear friends and scholars discuss him. Margaret Sartor, editor of “What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney,” spoke movingly about the photographer who died in 1989 at age 56. But what spoke most eloquently of his talent were the prints, especially the 33 from Kentucky. Gedney visited that state in 1964 and 1972, staying with the family of an out-of-work coal miner. His pictures of them are intimate without being voyeuristic—allowing us to know not only what these people look like, but to feel we know who they are.


The girl in “Big Rock, Kentucky, July 1964” is maybe 11; she stands in a threadbare dress with her arms folded, leaning against some wooden siding, and is much too dirty for someone her age. But her chin is up and her head cocked slightly to the side, making her less passive than Lucille Burroughs in Walker Evans’s similar picture. In several pictures young men, naked to the waist, attend lovingly to the engine of a beat-up Chevy truck. The handling of light and attention to detail in “Kentucky, 1964,” a picture of three girls in a kitchen, makes it an Appalachian Vermeer.


And there’s more than the Kentucky prints.