Photographer William Gedney crossed the Bay Bridge for the first time in 1966, just as thousands of disaffected youth were coming to San Francisco with flowers in their hair. In his diary, he would describe his first glimpse of the city as a spiritual experience: “A white city, on moving levels, gleaming, it looked like a magic city in the distance,” he wrote. “But then we tend to project emotions on distant objects.”
This sense of wonder and infinite possibility, combined with a harsh dose of realism, defines the photographs Gedney took in San Francisco in 1966 and ’67. That work is now collected in a book, A Time of Youth, published by Duke University Press, and edited by Lisa McCarty, a professor of photography at Southern Methodist University.
Gedney always intended to create a book out of his San Francisco photographs. He made extensive notes sketching out the size and order of the prints, the cover design, and the epigraph from composer John Cage. A Time of Youth, then, is something of a meta-book, not only displaying Gedney’s photographs as the artist intended, but also a trove of primary source documents that chronicle his artistic process and philosophy. Of course, the main event remains the images themselves, and the subjects who populate them, presenting a depth seldom seen in depictions of hippies.
“Gedney, being a good witness, does not attempt to direct our verdict concerning the quality of these lives,” reads the wall text of the artist’s 1968 New York MoMA exhibition, which includes many of his photos from San Francisco. “He does allow us to see that they are in many ways much like our own.”
Overlooked No More
Gedney was part of a midcentury school of documentary photographers that included giants like Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and John Szarkowski. While Gedney was widely admired by his contemporaries, he failed to gain much notoriety before his tragic death from AIDS in 1989, at the age of 56. The photographs collected in A Time of Youth are among his best known, included in the aforementioned exhibit at New York MoMA, and an SFMoMA retrospective 32 years later, in 2000.
While the young people who swarmed San Francisco during the Summer of Love were an object of fascination for the media, most coverage was superficial and sensational. Gedney, by contrast, lived with these dropouts and seekers in various Haight-Ashbury pads, accessing scenes that few journalists or TV cameramen would ever capture. A Time of Youth contains a few images of the iconic Human Be-In that inspired the Summer of Love, but most of the moments Gedney captured took place in nondescript, albeit quintessentially San Franciscan, interiors.
The collection vaguely follows a day in the life of an archetypal hippie — divided into seven sections marked by nothing more than a black page. As the afterword reveals, each of these sections, spanning “the morning awaking” to “the codification,” was conceived by Gedney in the late ’60s, and seem to reflect hippie sensibilities around time and classification. In an undated diary entry, Gedney matches each section with a corresponding Bob Dylan song.
Music was clearly important to Gedney, as seen by the remarkable number of flautists and guitarists who appear in this collection, as well as the epigraph from composer John Cage. Cage may well have been the first person to see Gedney’s draft version of the book, according to McCarty. His response to the photographs was so striking it became the mood to which Gedney set the book: “They seem to be doing happy things sadly, or maybe they’re doing sad things happily.”
There are no pictures of people doing drugs in the collection — Gedney himself identified this as an oversight in his journals — but plenty of pictures of people with “the look.” Just as often, however, the subjects of the photos simply look bored and tired. The many interior scenes where people are lying around and doing nothing recall our own times, minus the laptops and phones. The overcrowded, dingy old apartments might be familiar to many modern day San Franciscans, too.
The few cityscapes depicted in the collection are striking in their grayness — and not just because these are black and white photos. The late ’60s marked the very early days of the “Colorist Movement” that turned San Francisco’s Victorian houses polychrome. The flower children, with their colorful garb, largely traversed streets lined with white and gray buildings. In fact, their style and sensibilities, along with the growing gay community, inspired so many homeowners to paint their buildings in bold, exciting colors.
Gedney wrote that his book represents “an attempt at visual literature, modeled after the novel form,” with recurring characters and other literary devices. Several of his photographs feature the same subjects in the same setting, seemingly at intervals of a few minutes. The effect is like a movie for the imagination: The viewer is left to fill in the blanks as to what has transpired, and why, between each frame.
While Gedney had a journalistic background, his eye is clearly trained toward human emotion and feeling. His shots of couples are some of the most uplifting and spirited in the collection. And his portraits of individual men shows his eye for beauty.
“Many of his photos are a hymn to an age he knows to be transient, full of ambiguities, freighted with a fascinating immaturity,” the critic Gilles Mora wrote. “His most endearing portraits reveal, behind an adolescent innocence, the seeds of a sexual attraction that never leaves him.”
The impulse to capture the ephemerality of youth and beauty is what gives this collection its melancholy sweetness. It’s also a reflection of Gedney’s own San Francisco story.
“While Gedney enters San Francisco with optimism, he leaves disillusioned,” McCarty writes. “Gedney’s experience then mirrors that of many who made the pilgrimage to the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love.” The photographer left frustrated by the all-cosuming nature of the drug scene, and the surprising cultural dominance of “straight boy-girl sex.”
But his critical, empathic gaze helps complete a more human picture of the most tumultuous and most stereotyped moment in San Francisco history.