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Gedney’s intimate gaze of India

The photographer's images of Varanasi and Kolkata, taken from 1969-80, will be seen in India for the first time

Card-players in Kolkata (1980). Photos: William Gedney Photographs Courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University
Card-players in Kolkata (1980). Photos: William Gedney Photographs Courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University

If you see anything horrible, don’t cling to it. If you see anything beautiful, don’t cling to it." Photographer William Gedney scribbled this quote in his red, cloth-bound diary on a cold February morning in 1971, in Benares (now Varanasi). The lines were taken from Allen Ginsberg’s freshly published Indian Journals, based on the American Beat poet’s writings from a 1962-63 stay in India.

Gedney, like Ginsberg, was peripatetic—he quit his job at Time magazine in the mid-1960s to travel to eastern Kentucky, where he stayed with and photographed two families; after being hired to teach photography at his alma mater, the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, he took off for India on a Fulbright fellowship in 1969, spending 14 months in Varanasi; he also travelled through and shot in Japan, Ireland and parts of Europe. Like Ginsberg, he maintained journals, but his writings didn’t possess the epiphanic or ebullient tone of Ginsberg’s journals. Instead, Gedney’s diaries were magpie-like, containing quotes from different writers, noting down thoughts or ideas that appealed to him.

A street in Varanasi at night.

In his 1970 journal, Gedney writes about his days in great detail—his bicycle rides to the ghats of Varanasi, his friends and conversations, run-ins with locals placing “limitations on (his) freedom in public places", a meeting with the family of the late maharajkumar of Vizianagaram, former Indian cricket team captain Vijay Ananda Gajapathi Raju, on their palace rooftop in Varanasi.

Like his writings, Gedney’s photographs reveal a similar concern for the quotidian. According to Shanay Jhaveri, the assistant curator for South Asia modern and contemporary art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Gedney’s photographs captured daily rhythms rather than big sociopolitical events. “Gedney’s technique revealed closeness with his subjects, a (regard for) specificity of how people live their lives."

Unlike other Western photographers who were making images in and of India—from Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White around the time of Partition, to Mary Ellen Mark, famous for her Falkland Road series on the sex workers in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the late 1970s—Gedney’s black and white street photography was distinctive in the way it depicted people, revealing an intimacy between the photographer and his subjects, something which Jhaveri refers to as a “micro-narrative approach". Gedney’s photographs did not lend themselves easily to a Western framework of “seeing" India as either a newly independent country or a developing nation, says Jhaveri.

A weightlifter in Varanasi.

We see photographs of people sleeping in the old quarters of Varanasi, of bathers at the ghat, the thrum of everyday life on streets, with men and women going about their business seemingly indifferent to the lens of an unobtrusive white man.

This is not to say that Gedney created his photographs in a vacuum. Nearly a decade after he died in 1989 (the photographer, who was gay, died of an AIDS-related complication), his India works formed part of a travelling photography exhibition held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, titled India: A Celebration Of Independence, 1947-1997, to mark India’s 50th year of independence, and some were published in an issue of the magazine Aperture. The exhibition never came to India.

During his lifetime, Gedney’s India photographs were not very well-known. He created a dummy book of some of his Varanasi works—shot at night and instances of great technical virtuosity—but it remained unpublished.

A street photographer in New Delhi (1969).

On 9 March, a selection of Gedney’s 48 India photographs will be showcased for the first time in the country, at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation gallery, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), in Mumbai. Devika Singh, an art historian and fellow at the Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art, Max Weber Stiftung, Paris, and Margaret Sartor, herself a photographer, who began working with the William Gedney archive at the Duke University Libraries in 1993, have co-curated the show with Jhaveri.

Besides the Varanasi pictures, the exhibition, to be held in collaboration with the Duke University Libraries, will also showcase works from Gedney’s second trip to India, undertaken a decade later, this time to Calcutta (now Kolkata).

In fact, Gedney had intended to go to Kolkata the first time he visited the country. Sartor, who co-edited What Was True: The Photographs And Notebooks Of William Gedney with Geoff Dyer in 1999, writes about this in the introduction to the book. “On the train trip cross-country, Gedney was stopped short of his proposed destination by the spectacle of Benares, the sacred city by the Ganges." He would travel to Delhi only to make prints of works, and finally visited Kolkata in 1979, staying there for four months.

Gedney also knew photographer Raghubir Singh. “William Gedney wrote to Raghubir Singh in 1969 when he was preparing for his first trip to India. They later met and became close friends, spending time together in Paris and New York. Raghubir later dedicated his second Calcutta book to Bill (Gedney)," Devika Singh, daughter of Raghubir Singh, says over email.

John Szarkowski, a former director of the department of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and author of the seminal 1973 book Looking At Photographs, curated a show of Gedney’s photographs, held from December 1968-March 1969, shortly before Gedney left for India for the first time.

Gedney had photographed an out-of-work coal miner’s 14-member family in 1964—he returned to them in 1972, after his Varanasi trip. Between October 1966 and February 1967, he travelled with young men and women to San Francisco, photographing the community more commonly referred to as “hippies". Szarkowski curated the exhibition of photographs from both works.

“Gedney’s pictures make it clear that the individuals are more complex and more interesting than the cliches," says Szarkowski. “These are not photographs of hillbillies and hippies, but of people living precariously under difficulty. The pictures reward us with real knowledge of the lives of specific people."

The same holds true for Gedney’s India works.

In sharp focus

’Gedney In India’ will form part of the third edition of the Focus Photography Festival, which will be held in Mumbai from 9-23 March across multiple venues. The festival’s theme this year is memory, and all the events—exhibitions, workshops, talks, mentor sessions, walk-throughs—will centre around this. Art historian Prajna Desai has curated 18 works from over 200 entries that were handed in by photographers from 39 countries responding to a call for submission; these will be exhibited under the title ‘Autobiography As Memory’ at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. What About Art?, a residency based in Bandra, will also hold a group show of international artists. For more details, visit

Gedney In India will be on view from 10 March-30 June, 10.15am-6pm, at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation gallery, CSMVS, Fort, Mumbai.

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