The photographer William Gedney was only 56 when he died of AIDS in 1989, and, despite a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1968, little known in his lifetime. But he had important and influential champions in photographer Lee Friedlander and curator John Szarkowski, who gave him that MoMA show and added his work to the museum’s collection. Since he published none of the seven books he laid out before his death, our appreciation of the range and depth of that work has depended largely on posthumous surveys, including two excellent collections published since 2000. A Time of Youth: San Francisco 1966-1967 (Duke University Press) is the first book issued as Gedney conceived it. Although the publisher introduces the photographs with a wealth of supporting material, including Gedney’s handwritten notes, that academic framework only sets the emotional intensity of his black-and-white images–their sense of yearning and concern–into high relief. Gedney was a generation older and far more responsible than his young subjects, but he clearly identified with the restlessness of Haight-Ashbury’s counterculture nomads–hanging out, hooking up, and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. A photograph by William Gedney from the book “A Time of Youth: San Francisco, 1966-1967” (Duke University Press).
“I do not consider myself a ‘social-problem’ photographer,” Gedney wrote by way of introduction to another project. “I prefer the ordinary action, the intimate gesture, an image whose form is an instinctive reaction to the material.” His instincts allowed him to get close to the twentysomething drifters in his San Francisco photographs; he seems as embedded as any front-line photojournalist. But his sympathies are strained. Is he witness to freedom–a liberation from convention–or aimlessness, emptiness, boredom, and futility? His notes on the project seesaw between attraction and disillusion–reactions that must have been complicated by the scruffy, unselfconscious beauty of the boys in his photographs. Gedney didn’t attempt to disguise the desire simmering just under the surface of many of these pictures, but the tenderness in his work is rarely sexualized. And besides, the mood here is only occasionally celebratory; more often it’s what Philip Gefter describes in his essay as “one of forlorn, if soulful, disaffection.” Gedney anticipated the Summer of Love in the Be-In he photographed but he left months…