Too loud a solitude

The ongoing exhibition of William Gedney’s photographs in the city is the first in the world to focus solely on his work in India

Updated - April 19, 2017 07:52 am IST

Published - April 15, 2017 09:22 am IST

When William Gedney came to India, he had no intention of spending 14 months in Benares. The American photographer – little known beyond a single solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968-69 – had not, in fact, spent such a continuous length of time, with a camera and an intention to make work, anywhere else apart from his chosen home, the city of New York.

What part of the mythical spirit of Benares drew Gedney to it we can only guess. He lived there between 1969 and 1970, not in an ashram or in a hotel, but with a family, as the quiet resident of a bustling neighborhood, creating a place for himself through a domesticity of the kind he seemed to inhabit wherever he went.

Between the private and public

This domestic life did not become the subject of his photographs in Benares, or in Calcutta where he would later spend four months, though there are more interior images, taken within homes and offices and art studios, in his archive from the Bengali capital. One can speculate that – unlike in East Kentucky and San Francisco, where his major bodies of work were made, and where he entered wholly the familial lives of a single group – as a foreigner he was unable to cross a certain line of privacy in India.

But perhaps this was also a choice. Because Gedney recognised quickly that this line between the public and private, so evident in America, was uncommon, if not nonexistent, in Benares. He spent his days and – more importantly for what we will discuss later – his nights, on the streets, and on the ghats. The solitude of this endeavour is evident – this solitude that was so much a part of him and his art that every writer or commentator on his work cannot help but mention it – is painfully present, in his archive.

Forty-eight of these photographs, from the more than 350 rolls that he shot in the subcontinent, are on display at the exhibition Gedney in India that was also the opening show of the recently concluded Focus Photography Festival in the city. There are three curators for the show – Shanay Jhaveri, Margaret Sartor and Devika Singh – a surprising number for the small number of images in the exhibition. Each has chosen what they saw as most significant from Gedney’s time in India. Sartor was the first person to research all of Gedney’s archive, during a short conversation, as we discussed the quietness of his work, she remarked that this is possibly why Gedney has remained obscure, even in America, and perhaps why he will continue to be appreciated only by a small number of people, his is a gentle gaze that finds threads, finds form not just in a single image but the form of a place, of a time, of a people.

The Gedneyan body

Even though his photographs from Benares are produced in what (one can imagine) would have seemed an unfathomably chaotic sphere, most images still have the quality of a quiet room, as if his frame dropped down unseen walls. And as if within those walls, all of the men and the boys we see (there are women too but not as frequently) are their most natural selves. The body is a key, a fulcrum, into viewing this exhibition. The literary photographer finds the body’s relationship to its sculptural and cultural surroundings, the form given to it by the labour it undertakes, the way it leans across a rickshaw, the way it collapses onto a wall in repose, the subtle draping of limb on limb, the knees that lie folded and the body so touchingly foetal seen on a terrace under palms. One craves an entire exhibition that focuses on these aspects of boyhood, of manhood, of the particular and comfortable intimacy between men in India, for whom the grasping of hands, and the bareness of chests, is neither proscribed nor demonstrative of machismo.

The careful eye

How did Gedney avoid the exotic cliché, the caricaturing of the sadhu, the idol, the believer, and the supplicant, that is so common in the work of both Indian and foreign photographers that have been attracted to Benares? The answer is evident in his meticulous diaries. He consumed literature – mythological, historical, and fictional – informing himself deeply about Hinduism, and creating an autobiography, not through his own words, but through the constant transcription of what touched him in what he read.

Was Gedney better able to see this because of his sexuality, a proclivity for, and intimacy with, the male body? From his diaries, it seems rather deeply related, especially in India, with his appreciation and knowledge of sculpture and painting, and of his observation of daily life. A wonderful section of his Varanasi diary, stream of consciousness style, sheds light on this and also on why dhotis and saris, shorts and shirts, all cloth in fact, whether worn or hung in Gedney’s photographs, seems to have a life of their own: “men are constantly with their hands on each other – around their necks, even when riding bicycles men hold hands – the clothes Indians wear being simple (classical) drop with many folds. one is aware of the movement of cloth against bodies, fabric flowing with a moving body. people still go bare foot… india is a place of direct contact…indian men are constantly groping themselves. when bathing they delight in rubbing themselves with mustard oil sensually massaging their limbs or rubbing each other in the most intimate manner. they sit, squat, twist their legs from childhood into contorsions that are comfortable to them these involve much more physical contact with their own bodies and the ground or floor…” (deciphered from the diary entry of 22 February 1970, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library).

The Gedneyan body, languid in one moment, muscular and spirited in the next (the wrestler, the rickshaw-puller, the bather, the boys at play) is not just a sensual object but provides a subtle challenge to the 21st century urban vision of machinised, not to mention medicalised, bodies. The Herculean physique clothed in money, seemingly powerful, is itself a contradictory product of overconsumption. That it is supposed to be representative of desire, to be the new male archetype, reveals a radical rupture – the aspiration to a luxury that requires no physical labour with the appearance of a body that imitates the heaviest of real labour. The commonplace acceptance of this Herculean figure as a salesman of watches or cars or clothes, the appropriation of all bodies by consumerism, takes place against a white or unrecognizable backdrop, a backdrop always devoid of real place, and real time. As seen against Gedney’s images, so representative of their place, their time, their subject, and their maker, popular fashion photography and what it espouses, seems sadistic, cruel, and laughable.

In the opening paragraph of Too Loud a Solitude – the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s novel on the life of a man who compacts “wastepaper” and thus consumes rare books surreptitiously for a living – we find a fitting description of Gedney’s process of imbibition: “My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past 35 years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each…”

The central role that reading, and the writing of his own astute observations, played in informing Gedney’s vision could have been revealed further in the exhibition. Though two vitrines give us glimpses of some pages of the diary (that are cumbersome to decipher because of the size of display) neither the accompanying text to the show, nor the quotes from prominent photographers and curators that impress the audience as they enter the exhibition, signal the depth of this voluminous record. A particularly long entry that begins his Varanasi diary on the 22 February 1970, spanning ten small pages, reveals that Gedney did not see Benares through rose tinted glasses. He constantly questioned the source of the dramas he saw on the streets. It ends with a prescient sentiment, as true then as it is now: “Indians’ long heavy tradition has held the country together and is destroying it at the same time. Truly religion here is still the opium of the people.”

Enter the night

Perhaps this statement provides a clue to why his most cohesive work from Benares seems devoid of the overt religiosity one expects from any photography documenting the city of Shiva. Benares Night , a series of 20 images compiled by Gedney – out of which nine take centre stage at the exhibition – was one of the few book dummies that he left behind, and the last he worked on. In What Was True the first book to survey Gedney’s archive, Margaret Sartor, the editor of the book and co-curator of this exhibition, discusses his obsession with night time in America, but writes he never achieved what he wanted in his nocturnal images there. On the contrary, in India, where life did not retreat indoors after sunset, he captured a slice of dark, soft, sweet magic.

The magic of sleep, of these houses and temples on whose ruins the city has rebuilt itself over eons, of the steps leading to the river (another entry from the diary: “the drama inherent in steep stone steps to the river – the importance of approach – sets the mood – the river the stage of life, the city perched on the banks… physical levels involved in heightened reality”) but for once it is empty of figures, and when a figure appears, it is solitary – as solitary as Gedney – a figure seen at rest. The greys of Gedney, the depth he could create in his images in the daytime (where you sometimes see layer upon layer, plane upon plane of activity, unmatched by anything our gaze accomplishes) is as skillfully matched by his blacks, the closer you stand to the prints on the wall, the deeper you will see into the black of the night, and from that night will appear a pillar, a window, a ghost.

The India years

Gedney died young at the age of 57 in 1989, and he left his entire collection of photography books to Chitrabani, a college in Kolkata where this public library still resides. His relationship to India was cemented also by his deep friendship to the renowned photographer Raghubir Singh; there is a photograph of an ambassador car covered in dust, lying in a courtyard, split down the frame by a tree, that visually connects them (if only for those who know Singh’s A Way Into India ) in the exhibition.

Singh was an ardent admirer of Gedney, considering him no less than one of the masters of black and white photography in his time. As one stands between Gedney’s Calcutta and Benares, so different from the Calcutta and Banares of Singh, so different from the End Time City of Michael Ackerman, so different from the Calcutta of Raghu Rai, one starts to question when we will have an exhibition that looks at the long history of photography in these cities – surely it is time that each city had a retrospective of its own – that brings all these, and many other, photographers together. While this exhibition is a beginning, one way of understanding Gedney’s India, many more are necessary so that the unseen work made in these cities can begin to be understood, giving us their contrasting histories.

The reason we have had the opportunity to recover Gedney’s India, so many years after his death, is because of his own careful archiving and the remarkable efforts of a few individuals alongside Duke University, an institution that has built the resources to handle these collections remarkably and who have made every image, diary entry, and book dummy that Gedney made available for free online. When will we have a place like this here? A public research university that can handle sensitive photographic material, so our photographers, our Gedneys, may also be seen and known for decades beyond their time? To end with the words of Gedney, yet another haiku from the Benaras diaries: “the expenditure of time | the different quality of time – in cosmic attitude | the past always present | the future as sameness”.

Gedney in India is ongoing at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation at CSMVS, Fort until June 30

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