When the photographer William Gedney left for India, in the fall of 1969, he had just started to win a slender repute for his intimate portraits.
The previous year, the Museum of Modern Art had given Gedney his first major exhibition: forty-four black-and-white photographs taken during his excursions into Kentucky’s coal-mining country and San Francisco’s counterculture. In these surroundings, Gedney had captured the lives of Americans inhabiting the frayed borders of their societies: in rural Kentucky, three girls in a bare, grimy kitchen, in what feels like the slow middle of a Sunday afternoon; in California, a young couple kissing on a beach as a friend plays a recorder. Somehow, Gedney had crept into these quiet, throwaway scenes and burgled them for his camera.
Perhaps it was inevitable that India would call to Gedney: His work, the moma curator John Szarkowski wrote, was a study “of people living precariously under difficulty,” and there were millions upon millions of such people to be found here. The most famous Western photographers to have visited India before Gedney were Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White, who witnessed the tumult of independence in 1947. Their photos—of leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, or of the slaughters of Partition—radiated political import. Gedney, though, seemed to exist almost outside his time. His brimming notebooks, the scholar Margaret Sartor remarks in an essay in “What Was True,” an edited volume of Gedney’s photos and writings published in 2000, contain no “references to current events; there is no mention of Vietnam, Ronald Reagan or H.I.V.” He refused to treat India as a foreign land; on the contrary, his themes and ideas from Kentucky march uninterrupted into his work in India.
Having landed in Delhi in 1969, Gedney had intended to make directly for Calcutta, but he got off his train at Varanasi, halfway across the girth of India’s northern plains, and remained there for more than a year before returning to the United States; only a decade later did he get to Calcutta, where he shot for four months. Forty-eight of Gedney’s photos from these two trips are now on exhibit for the first time in India, in a show co-curated by Sartor at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, in Mumbai. Many of these photos latch onto tiny, arresting pockets of stasis in the streets of Varanasi and Calcutta. Boys holding sticks chivvy their water buffaloes onward. A mobile photo studio has been temporarily abandoned, the box camera waiting in front of a backdrop of the Taj Mahal. Young men slumber at night upon a traffic island. People often sleep in these photos, in fact, or they just sit around in poses of refined languor. Stillness is Gedney’s great obsession, his most lasting theme.
Gedney was a man of New York, through and through. He was born upstate, in Greenville, studied at the Pratt Institute, and lived and worked in the city. Even with the support of Szarkowski, and of his close friend Lee Friedlander, his work had limited reach; when he died, of aids-related illness, in 1989, the Times devoted just three paragraphs to his obituary. India was the big overseas adventure of his working life, although if he grew fond of the country, he never confided this to his notebooks. The crowds wearied him, the melons tasted awful, the movies were clumsily censored, and kids pestered him as he shot. The country, he wrote, was “corrupt, small-minded, diseased. Money is the god here.” But, without fail, Gedney still found beauty to capture: the elegance of fabric draped upon a body, or limbs curving expressively even in repose, or the rhythms of life lived on the streets. A year after he reached Varanasi, Gedney wrote, “I have spoken of India as a bittersweet land. It grows increasingly bitter for me. I have never let the bitterness show in my work.” Gedney never made a fetish out of the dramas of light and angle, so the focal points of his photographs are never instantly obvious. A reader must look attentively at every detail in the frame, each telling her something small and discrete; then, quite suddenly, the details cohere, and the photo transforms into an enhanced whole. My favorite of Gedney’s India photos depicts two Calcutta rickshaw-pullers on a break, perched next to each other on one of their vehicles. On the left, the younger of the pair leans back, his hands grasping the rickshaw’s frame behind him; he looks, from this recumbent pose, at his colleague, who sits with one leg crossed over the other. The photo reminded me of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Les Deux Amies,” not only for the echoes of the figures’ postures—one seated, one supine—but also for the gaze of almost shocking tenderness that seems to leap from one man toward the other.
How did Gedney get so near and yet remain so unobtrusive? This is, after all, the documentarian’s eternal quandary—how to find an orbit close enough for perfect, minute observation but also far enough to preclude any influence upon the scene. Gedney’s solution was to loiter with enormous patience until his subjects forgot about him—whereupon he promptly set about immortalizing them. In one of his notebooks, Gedney scribbled a couple of lines from the Bhagavad Gita, spoken by Krishna to his friend Arjuna: “Many lives you and I have lived, Arjuna; I remember them all, but you do not.” This could have been Gedney’s credo. He moved among transitory lives, remembering them for us.