magyar moon

magyar moon

Saturday, May 21, 2016

WILLIAM GEDNEY AND HIS SHIRTLESS MEN



William Gedney, Self-Portrait

I recently did a blog post featuring American photographer William Gedney (1932-1989).

In the summer of 1964, Gedney traveled to the Blue Diamond Mining Camp in Leatherwood, Kentucky, where he spent two weeks with a local family named Cornett. This photographic sojourn inspired him to return to Leatherwood in 1972, where he again documented the family (and the now-grown children) in photographs.

I received this curious comment regarding my post:

I have some family from Appalachia, one of whom was a professional photographer in the 20s and 30s. I have trouble believing the older boys and men in these photos were just standing around with no shirts on at this time period. The photographer probably paid them to do that. Even the poorest white trash didn't go around shirtless. 

I'm not easily surprised, but I was admittedly taken aback by such an unusual opinion.

William Gedney was gay - - and there's no doubt that his Kentucky photographs often focused on the raw, unintentionally erotic aspect of the local men.

These photographs were  spontaneous and unrehearsed. It was mid-summer, in a very rural and unsophisticated area. It's  reasonable to believe that the boys and men would have been extremely casual and shirtless at times. And Gedney certainly took photographic advantage of the situation.

Anything is possible, of course, and I don't profess to know how Gedney's photographic inspirations were created. It does seem very highly unlikely to me, however, that he traipsed around rural Kentucky asking hillbilly men to take off their shirts for cash.

The majority of shirtless photos were taken in 1972, when modesty - even in rural areas - wasn't as prevalent as it was 40 or 50 years before.

In my previous Gedney post http://cabinetofcurioustreasures.blogspot.com/2016/04/william-gedney.html

 I deliberately used some of what I considered to be the most homoerotic Kentucky photos. I never suspected, however, that the subjects in the photos were anything other than innocently spontaneous.

Anyway, here are some more William Gedney photos for your consideration. 

 The Cornett family in 1964
Leatherwood, Kentucky
(they had twelve children)

 






1964






 1972

































MY OTHER BLOG:

22 comments:

  1. It never occurred to me but your anonymous poster may have a point regarding shirtless men. My dad was born in 1916 in rural Illinois. He never took his shirt off no matter how hot it was. I'll attribute it to modesty of the times because I remember reading how scandalous it was when Clark Gable (I think) appeared in a white t-shirt. Of course then there was a run on t-shirts at the local department stores. People in general just didn't show a lot of skin. Think of the first bikinis - they'd be laughed off the beach today.

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  2. Most of Gedney's shirtless photos were taken on his return visit to Leatherwood in 1972 - - at a time when "modesty" was anything but Victorian - even in rural America. 1972 is a lot different than the 1920's or 30's.

    The Clark Gable hubub occurred when he made the film "It Happened One Night" in 1934.

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    1. BTW
      Gable appeared bare-chested when he removed his shirt in "It Happened One Night." As a result the sale of T-shirts decreased.

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    2. Love that movie but apparently the commonality of today's skin exposure made me immune to Gable taking his shirt off. I'll look closer upon my next viewing. I, however, never missed Johnny Weissmuller's bare chest.

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  3. We're Minnesotans and my dad (just died last year at 94) was never without a shirt and never walked around in an undershirt, either, no matter how hot it was out. The only time he went shirtless was swimming and he said the guys all went shirtless when they were cleaning the decks when he was in the navy in the 40s...if they were at sea. But none of these photos look staged. It could have been a rural area where they didn't mind people being shirtless. There were a couple of dads in our neighborhood who mowed the lawn without a shirt. (Seemed almost obscene--LOL!) But by the 60s things were loosening up.

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    1. My dad never took his shirt off, either, unless he was swimming.

      Gedney obviously took photographic advantage of the shirtless "hillbillies" but I honestly doubt if the photos were staged.

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  4. Whatever other, artistic, reasons Gedney may have had for his models going shirtless, it creates a wider field of resemblance among the men and boys of the family. There are obviously 2 distinct physiotypes --lanky father, wiry mother. Only photo where it seemed overly contrived was the boy on the Honda 90, which one does not ride shirtless over bumpy terrain. Great post, Jon!

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    1. I was thinking the same thing about the Honda photo. Judging by the boy's trousers, this was definitely taken in 1972 - and it doesn't look like he'll be riding anywhere beyond the realms of the photo.

      This particular kid was cute and seemed to be one of Gedney's favorite subjects.

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  5. Shirtless was the norm during this time period, the very second that the spring temperature allowed, and 'bumpy terrain' or not. It wasn't maverick or daring, it wasn't unusual or fretted about. It was as natural as the skin exposed.

    Exposed skin. Oh my, I'm shaking in my boots.

    Thank you for posting these great photographs, Jon. I'm entranced by the composition and lighting; they are stunning.

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    1. I appreciate your input, Tomass, because you're absolutely right. The "shirtless" debate has become a mountain when it's,in fact, merely a molehill.

      Shirtless men were indeed the norm during that time period - especially in the hot (unairconditioned) summer.
      This was Kentucky in the 1970's - - not Victorian England.

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  6. Shirtless or not... the raw intensity of these people and their life speaks volumes through the lense of this photographer. Thank you for exposing us to him in blogland. PS) for what it is worth- When I was wandering through the hills of West Virginia back in the 70's... in the hot spring and summer the men were wearing shirts, but as I recall the teenagers did not???

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    1. I think the raw intensity was the foremost thing that Gedney wanted to project - and the shirtlessness was merely a bonus.

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  7. I'm glad you've shared more of Gedney's work, Jon!
    Taryterre described it best: "raw intensity."
    Their living conditions aside, not one of his subjects seemed upset by their circumstance. I was particularly struck by the girls' impromptu doll-house tableau. Every American teenager should see these!

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    1. Sometimes I think a very simple rural life was a better environment than the complicated crap of the "civilized" world.

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  8. Replies
    1. Thanks, Paula. The simple, hard-working people are the foundation of America.

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  9. the pearl-clutchers must be averting their eyes. my sperm donor never went without a shirt. spouse usually wears a t-shirt to mow the lawn.

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  10. I never imagined there were dress codes in rural Kentucky. I do believe that some very daring hillbillies might have removed their shirts during the sweltering summer heat - without getting paid to do it.

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    1. Most of the fellows are suntanned. When they are wearing shirts, the garments are short-sleeved. If they always wore shirts, there would be a distinct line on their arms above their elbows.

      I agree with you, Jon, and imagine the Cornetts would chuckle at the consternation regarding their bare chests.

      Whether or not the family received remuneration is irrelevant. Gedney's work is outstanding. Such pleasure to simply open up and take in the rich textures and stories of his photographs.

      I thank you once again for bringing this notable artist to my attention.

      Best to you.

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    2. Thanks, Tomass -
      You've made a good point about the shirtless men being tan, and also that they would have had tan lines if they always wore shirts.

      William Gedney promised the Cornett family that he'd share his earnings with them if he sold any of the photos - - and he kept his word. From what I heard he sent them half of his earnings for the photos. And it had nothing to do with the men being shirtless (*smile*).

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  11. Gedney was quite the photojournalist. I wonder how difficult it was for him to gain the trust of the people he photographed. Although their way of life was the only one they knew, I'd think they might be a little reticent about it being chronicled for the rest of the world to see.

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  12. I grew up on Leatherwood Kentucky. Willie Cornett and his family lived on Leatherwood, and many of them still reside there to this day. I know for a fact that people go shirtless when it hot, but they do not walk around town like that, nor do they go in stores with their shirt open, they also wear shirts when laboring unless they are at home. Also one picture is them working with coal. I have busted coal, and shoved it as well and as a woman you would love to be able to take that shirt off, but even men do not remove their shirts unless they are working at home. I can not see how people can make their comments about men being shirtless. There is not many instances here that his family is outside of their home, or outside the area of Leatherwood walking the back roads. It was probably quite hard for Gedney to gain the trust of the Cornett family because he sure could not get any other family in Leatherwood to do his pictures at the time. You only see Willie Cornett and his family. You do not see much of the area, nor any of the other people who lived on Leatherwood at this time. You do not see the theater that sat in The Blue Diamond Coal Camp at the time, as well as the commissary, the restaurant, Livingston Grade School, Leatherwood High School, and even the Drive-In and other things that sat in nearby viper at this time considering that Blue Diamond Coal Camp you talk about stayed open until the 1980's. Yes he did a excellent thing in documenting the Cornett family, yet he only documented one family, and they while a large family were not the normal way people were on Leatherwood. Most would not go into a store with their shirt open like that. Laboring without a shirt was done at home, out in public a shirt was worn. These pictures are not an adequate representation of the people of Leatherwood at this time, or now. My daddy lived on Leatherwood during the time Gedney was getting his pictures of the Cornett family. He would have never allowed someone to take his picture the same for my mom's family, and my grandparent's raised 10 of their own children, and a extra one as well. I lived on Leatherwood my entire life, and I still have family there, and it is nothing like the pictures that Gedney took of the Cornett family. The people of Leatherwood during the time he took his pictures were also very different that what the Cornett family was. It is quite interesting that Gedney is seen as the ideal of what Leatherwood is when you can just take a trip there, or do a web search for somebody that actually grew up there and speak with them about it.

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