William Gedney: Photographs of the San Francisco Diggers
(October, 1966 to January, 1967)
William Gale Gedney (1932-89) was a remarkable artist who
never achieved wide recognition during his lifetime. In the past few
years, his work has gained a certain momentum. This resurgence in Gedney
interest has coincided with a major museum exhibition (at the S.F. Museum
of Modern Art in 2000) along with publication of a book of his photographs (What
Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney, edited by
Margaret Sartor) and the major online web archive of his work that was installed
in 1999 at Duke University's Special Collections Library.
Bill Gedney (as his friends called him) was an immersion photographer.
He jumped into and shared the lives of his subjects to a level of intimacy
that few photographers would dare to risk. Bill's most recognized work
stems from journeys he made away from his native Brooklyn to ever-further
locales, documenting through his eyes those lives he shared if ever so
briefly. Kentucky, San Francisco, and India -- these were the three stops
where he completed some of his most haunting work.
In 1966, Bill received a Guggenheim fellowship to photograph
"American life". Gedney left Brooklyn and drove cross-country to
the West Coast, and ended up in San Francisco in October, 1966. He spent
the next three-plus months in California, taking several thousand
photographs of the people he met and the activities that he observed. As
he did earlier when he traveled to Kentucky (in 1964) Bill lived as close
to his subjects as possible. In Kentucky, he moved in with a coalminer
family. In San Francisco, he moved in with a crash pad family. He followed
this group of approximately six young street people as they moved through
the Haight Ashbury. Through these experiences, Bill was exposed to the
street life as no other photographer did.
In early November, 1966, Bill first came into contact with the Diggers.
(The dating is through his notebooks, of which I will discuss more soon.)
Over the next two months, he photographed the Free Food gatherings on two
different occasions, he photographed the Free Store on Frederick Street on
two different occasions, and he photographed Diggers on Haight Street as
he walked along the street, hanging out with the scene that was coalescing
at this time, prior to the media onslaught that would occur within six
There are several amazing facets about Gedney's work, in my opinion.
First of all, he was a meticulous and devoted scribbler. He kept notebooks
that he used to jot down the date, the subject of the work he was
photographing that day, even to the level of the numbered roll of film and
the F-stop and shutter speed settings he used. The second amazing fact is
that Duke University's Special Collections Library has, in what is most
assuredly a parallel level of meticulousness as Gedney's original work,
scanned many of the pages of his notebooks and made them available on the
web site. Additionally, these archival saints have scanned most of
Gedney's original contact sheets that he used to choose which images to
use for working prints.
Reading through Gedney's notebooks from his 1966 trip is where I
discovered that he had become acquainted with the Diggers. Once I had the
clues that Bill left in his notebook entries, I was able to piece together
the photos in the contact sheets. In all the articles that I have read
about Bill Gedney, I have not seen one mention of the Diggers. It just
goes to show, if you know what you're looking for, you will find gold on
the trail that others have trod many times before.
This then is my hope -- to be able to present the photographs that Bill
Gedney took in November 1966 to January 1967 of the Diggers in the Haight
Ashbury. This is a very special period that Gedney visited in the Digger
chronology. Free Food had barely begun four to six weeks earlier than the
first time Gedney shot their small gathering in the Panhandle. He also
wrote his own reflections on what was happening, and I will copy excerpts
here as well to provide insight to his perspective of this subject.