William Gedney: Journal Entries on Kentucky, Sex and Diane Arbus

The ASX Team

April 19, 2012

A Notebook of Journal Entries by William Gedney

“Exhaustion is apparent on every hand – exhaustion of soil, exhaustion of men, exhaustion of hopes. Weariness and lethargy have settled closer. Everywhere the nation, engulfed in its money-making and international politics, has paid no noticeable heed to its darkest area.”

Harry M. Caudill from Night Comes to the Cumberlands

Willaim Gedney Diary Excerpts:

“These photographs were taken in Eastern Kentucky during the summer of 1964. For over a month I lived with two families in the area. The fathers of both families were unemployed coal miners (one with twelve children), the region is rugged and isolated, the people are trapped in a circle of poverty, bad schools, corrupt politics and unskilled labor, etc.

I do not consider myself a “social-problem” photographer, I am concerned first with making a good photograph – an uncropped blending of form, value and content. I prefer the ordinary action, the intimate gesture, an image whose form is an instinctive reaction to the material. In these photographs I hope that something of this region and its people is conveyed to you. Reality is elusive and this is only my view.”


“There are two ways of looking at a thing. Either you feel that a thing must be perfect before you present it to the public, or you are willing to let it go out even knowing that it is not perfect, because you are striving for something even beyond what you have achieved, but in struggling too hard for perfection you know that you may lose the very glimmer of life, the very spirit of the thing that you also know exists at a particular point in what you have done; and that to interfere with it would be to destroy that very living quality.

I am myself always in favor of practicing in public. There are, of course, those people who say, ‘But the public is not interested in watching people practice. It wants the finished thing or nothing.’ My answer is that if one does not practice in public in reality, then in nine cases out of ten the world will never see the finished product of one’s work. Some people go on the assumption that if a thing is not a hundred percent perfect it should not be given to the world, but I have seen too many things that were a hundred percent perfect that were spiritually dead, and then things that have life and vitality, which I prefer by far to the other so-called perfect thing.”

It is one thing to think about a piece of work as a scientific or objective entity that will stand up a hundred years hence, and another to think of the living quality of the person doing the thing and of his development. Is the thing felt – does it come out of an inner need – an inner must? Is one ready to die for it? That is the only test…”

Alfred Stieglitz quoted by Dorothy Norman from American and Alfred Stieglitz, page 136-137.

 Willie Cornett, others without shirts smoking and leaning on truck, Kentucky, 1964 by William Gedney

Each man must at a time examine himself clearly without pretense. We spend our lives in forgetting ourselves, lost in meaningless work for money, meaningless entertainment, meaningless relationships and meaningless talk to disguise it all. Why am I not about to focus myself? I have the talent, I love to create, yet why do I waste most of my time, my days, now years in meaningless? Why am I so restless and unwilling to discipline myself. I let myself slide to the quickest way to forget, to pass a moment in the quickest pleasure, sex. I do not drink or smoke. So I use sexual pleasure and pursuit (3/4 of the game) to fill my days till it becomes an obsession, till I run to the window to peek out the blinds to wait for some attractive person to walk by – to watch, to desire and not to have.

“What a waste of spirit is lust in action.”

I am going to leave my job the end of January – beginning of February. I have money saved for six months. Am I to let this time drift by in meaningless days, in sleeping late, in boredom, and pursuit of pleasure, in waste to have nothing to show for it neither an expanded spirit or mind? But rather waste destruction of spirit and body. I have done this before many times in the last 6 years – given myself chances to do what I want – and I have always failed, wasted my time.

True I learned much from sexual adventures (so numerous that I lost count, if I was ever keeping count, years ago) but you reach a point where you can learn no more from lustful action – where it becomes repetitive habit. Why this distaste for work? It goes back far. Why this rebellion against discipline, now when it is not imposed from the outside but from within, when I know it is for my very existence.

I fall to easily to pleasure. I put up no resistance – can man change by himself, or is it thrust on him? Is the pattern set? New York City is a constant seduction. A constant bombardment of distraction. It is hard to control oneself here, yet the will of discipline comes from within, so it does not matter where you are? Evil breeds evil. Evil entices you to more evil. It becomes easier each time. It is an ever quickening progression to destruction.

I have never been able to take advantage of the spare moment. (I need a whole day to make photographic prints I tell myself, that four hours is not enough, so I waste the four hours at my disposal and do nothing). I don’t seem able to discipline these hours. I will fly at the slightest desire to a movie, to buy a book or record only to satisfy the momentary desire and thereby kill an evening. Now again I have the money saved for time to work. I have the talent, will I waste again?

“What matters most of all, is to penetrate into the pulsing of life of the people themselves, to become imbued with their way of living, and to see their faces when they sing at their weddings, harvests and funerals, and from all these associations to distill and preserve something more significant than a song on record, something beyond music and words, an abstract essence that will remain a living force within you.”

Bartok quoted by Agatha Fassett in “Naked Face of Genius”, pg. 190

Still photography and poetry are very close. To capture in a single frame visual forms organized to the point where neither more or less are needed. The single moment when form and content are one. Poetry does the same with words with the same strictness and economy. The exact arrangement of words to produce the effect with no more words than are needed. Art is the seeming perfect blending of many elements to produce a whole.

“I must say my feeling is – always has been very strong that the key to things must not be as we imagine it, but that the world must be ruled by strange systems of which we have not the slightest inkling. This is why I rush toward strange things . I am quite convinced that truth is strange; it is at the far end of strangeness that once has a chance to find the key to things.”

Jean Derbuffet – Lanscaped Tables, page 63

“The great lesson of modern Western art and thought: that one discovers in the object of one’s creative and reflective attention only what one has found or constructed in one’s self.”

From a review by Paul Mirs in the New York Times book review, page 1, December 10, 1967

Thur. April 11, 1972

Last night at cooper Union a seminar was held for Diane Arbus. Marvin Israel showed 120 to 140 slides of her work and talked about Diane. She has been dead not a year. So this was the first public thing about her. Her work is always a revelation, of course your sitting in a darkened room, your looking at slides, an ideal situation, it’s not prints with a lot of things to distract you. And someone is talking about them and then there is the emotional thing involved of her having killed her self. But I was wonderfully impressed by her work.

It is strange, last week Walker Evans was at Pratt, and this week Diane Arbus, it seems sometimes there’s too much to think about. I think she progressed marvelously there were of course many pictures I had not seen into 1971. And she really grew as an artist. I remember a kid at Pratt brought in a 1962 copy of Infinity with some 35mm pictures of hers of some of the odd people she photographed and they were good but they were not right yet. There is something about using the larger format camera, this ability of photography to render detail sharply and clearly: it seems to me more and more the 35mm camera give too romantic an image, its soft by its very nature because of the small negative, that it tends to romanticize things a great deal. It lacks the clarity I would like in photography.

Arbus had a background in fashion photography, she developed slowly but very surely, with a very clear instinct she developed because of her interest in her subject matter. All of this tied together as a photographer and his subject matter are intimately tied together. She was used to using the 2 1/4 in fashion and probably larger format too, at what point she switched to 2 1/4 I don’t know but I think it was inevitable.

Her photography is sort of a confrontation thing, not a harsh confrontation always, she deals with people directly. She didn’t like Cartier-Bresson and she felt in a sense that his traveling around the world and taking pictures was phony. At least that’s what she told me once. She felt that her presence must be recognized. That the photograph was a contract between her and the person being photographed. It was a joint venture. So that they must be aware that she is photographing and participate in being photographed.

She had a fondness for the odd people of society, the grotesque, the freaks they’re sometimes called, she photographed midgets and transvestites and giants and every one. She called these her people. She had an affinity for these people why I don’t know. And she loved the adventure of meeting all these strange people. It is told how she would spot someone on the street and run after them and engage them in conversation. She was extremely charming and I think she could charm anyone out of anything. And the fact she was a woman worked perfectly for her, she thought that being a woman was an advantage. There are many thins a woman can go that a man cant.

 Big Rock Kentucky, June 1977

Dear Vivian and Willie Cornett,

Another year has gone by and I meant to write my letter last year. I hope nothing is wrong and you are O.K. I know you have not hear from me in years and maybe I am a stranger to you now. I hope you still think of me as a friend and enclosed is a money order for $35.00.

I made myself a promise that if I ever sold any of the pictures I took of your family I would split any money with you. I sold my first picture from those I took in 1964. It is of three of the girls in the kitchen. I think I sent you a copy of it. I am enclosing a xerox copy of the page. It is for a book on photographing children.


Courtesy of William Gedney Photographs and Writings
Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

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