Category Archives: Photography

I Wander all Night in My Vision: Commemorating William Gedney and Walt Whitman

Post contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist at the Rubenstein Library

“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with
linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Section 4

June 23, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of photographer William Gedney’s death in New York City in 1989 at the young age of 56.  Gedney’s career spanned a time of great changes in American society and elsewhere, and in his photographs he captures the vitality and promise of those decades as well as the counterweights of social isolation and poverty.  A lover of literature, he found early inspiration for his work in another New Yorker: Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Gedney was fascinated by people in all their complexity and was an exceptional portraitist, using his camera rather than a pen; like Whitman, he was especially drawn to street life and crowds.  The full extent of Gedney’s preoccupation with Whitman can be more fully explored through the photographer’s archive; for now, this blog post will indicate some starting points in the collection.

Born in 1932, Gedney grew up in rural Greenville, New York, in the Hudson River Valley.  As a child, his family took him to visit relatives in the big city, and ultimately he studied art at Pratt Institute and moved into a cold-water flat in Brooklyn in the mid-1950s. While working as a commercial photographer to pay the bills and cover darkroom expenses, he roamed Brooklyn neighborhoods, his camera loaded with black-and-white film.  Many of the images capture daily life and the inhabitants of Myrtle Avenue, where he lived.  He continued this documentary work for the rest of his life.

Black and white photograph with elevated railway on Myrtle Ave in Brooklyn
Myrtle Avenue, May 5, 1969, 4:45 pm [taken from Gedney’s apartment window].  Print RL10032-P-1580-6682-08.   From this vantage point, Gedney also documented the demolition of the elevated railway soon after its closure in October 1969.  William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Black and white photograph of two boys
Caption: Brooklyn, 1955-1959. Print RL10032-P-B14-75-21. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Person with their arms out wide and head thrown back, perhaps smiling.
O’Rourke’s, January 9, 1960. Print RL10032-P-0057-0589-43. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

In 1966, William Gedney’s photographic life took flight: he traveled to Kentucky (twice), cross country to California (also twice), then across the ocean to Ireland, England, Paris (twice again), and India, also twice.  Brooklyn always drew him back.

Sometime around 1968 or 1969, perhaps inspired by Whitman’s interest in celebrating and documenting urban street life, he began a consuming project to uncover the history of Myrtle Avenue from its beginnings in the 18th century, using newspapers and literary sources, including the Brooklyn Eagle, for which Whitman served as editor, writing copious notes and pasting clippings in two volumes, Myrtle Avenue 1 and 2 – another habit he would continue throughout his life.  Some of his notes include transcripts of Whitman poems:

Two pages from Gedney's journal from 1969.
Myrtle Avenue, Book 1, pages 6-7. Transcription of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” Leaves of Grass.

At some point (probably earlier than 1969), he discovered that Walt Whitman had lived in Brooklyn, on 99 Ryerson Street, just a few blocks from Gedney’s neighborhood on Myrtle Avenue.  While living at that address, Whitman published his ground-breaking epic poem Leaves of Grass in June 1855.

Although it’s not clear when the idea first came to him, in 1969 Gedney began to create the layout for a project to combine Whitman’s verses with his own photographs of New York City.  In one of his notebooks, titled only with the year 1969, he writes about “the bridge” photographs, and of framing them with Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.”

Black and white photograph of the Brooklyn bridge.
Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1959, Print RL10032-P-0008-0076-30. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

A few months later, in the same notebook, Gedney writes “I think the bridge pictures would be best paired with Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry poem under the overall title ‘Brooklyn Crossing.’  His poem is the one I was most under the influence at the time.”  The Brooklyn Bridge book maquette in the Gedney archive contains no accompanying texts; however, during the recent Rubenstein project to rehouse and digitize the Gedney archive, the lead archivist came across this item hiding out in a box of oversize materials:

Stanza 2 of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in Gedney’s own hand. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Sometime around 1970, Gedney again turned to Whitman’s verses, this time selecting the poem “I wander all night in my vision” to introduce his planned book of night photographs taken in India.  Clearly Whitman was still on his mind and informing his work.

Man asleep on a ledge in an alley at night
Benares, India, 1969-1971. Print RL10032-P-BE121-0950-26. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Whitman quote of "I wander all nigh in my vision"
Layout page from planned photobook of night photography from Benares, India, circa 1980. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

I had thought Gedney’s connection to Whitman largely remained unexamined, with the exception of Margaret Sartor’s comments in her seminal book introducing Gedney and his archive to the world: What Was True: the Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (W.W. Norton, 2000). Then, while researching this blog post, I discovered Mark Turner’s book, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of NY and London (Reaktion Books: London, 2003), which in the context of the phenomenon of male cruising, discusses the remarkable parallels between Gedney and Whitman. The two clearly favored male liaisons, and this orientation was reflected to some degree in their poetic and artistic work.  Beginning in 1975, Gedney began extensively documenting the exuberant gay pride parades as well as street hustlers in San Francisco and New York, until a few years before his death.  At the same time, he was intensely private about his personal life, never fully coming out even to his closest friends.

“…as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering me the response of my own–these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.”

Walt Whitman, “Calamus 18”

Men sitting on the grass, one man with his head resting on the lap of another
June 25, 1978, New York City, gay march, Central Park. Print RL10032-P-1876-9617-07. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Man with unbuttoned shirt standing on street near strip club.
No known title, 1969. Proof print, contact sheet 1588. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Like William Gedney, Walt Whitman also celebrates an anniversary in 2019: he was born 200 years ago on May 31, 1819.  Many events have been planned in his honor:  http://waltwhitmaninitiative.org/

It’s easy to imagine that he would have been intrigued by Gedney’s photography and pleased at the idea of a publication of Brooklyn images prefaced by his own verses.

Sadly, it was not to be: Gedney bequeathed the world a body of compelling, eloquent photographic work, but his many book projects remained unpublished, with only the book maquettes in the archive as evidence of Gedney’s hopeful plans.  Perhaps with the right editor, these two artists will be joined again as Gedney had imagined.

“These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)”

Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” stanza 4

No known title, circa 1968. Print RL10032-P-1537-6255-32. Tree in foreground, Walt Whitman’s tomb in background, Camden, New Jersey. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

 


Note about the Gedney Collection: Although William Gedney’s work was still largely undiscovered by mainstream audiences at the time of his death in 1989, it stood on the cusp of an awakening, thanks primarily to the efforts of close friends Maria and Lee Friedlander, and John Sarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art.  Eventually the entire Gedney archive — over 49,000 photographs, negatives, artwork, and papers – came to Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and is now being digitized in its entirety (the finished prints and contact sheets are already available online). You can learn more about the collection by visiting the collection guide online.

World War I Orphans and American Red Cross Photographers

This post is contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist, and is part of “An Instant Out of Time: Photography a the Rubenstein Library” blog series.

My work as a photographic archivist often includes improving the housing of the thousands of photographs found in older collections in the Rubenstein Library.  One such group of seventy-eight photographs was recently discovered in the Isabelle Perkinson Williamson Papers, a collection of letters chiefly between Isabelle and her mother.  The Perkinsons were residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, where several family members served on the faculty at the University.  Isabelle married a civil engineer, Lee H. Williamson, in 1917 and traveled and lived abroad with her husband.  World War I found Lee Williamson serving in the 55th Engineers of the American Expeditionary Forces in France.  The collection includes his military ID card as well as some wartime correspondence.

As I sorted and sleeved the bundle of photographs, I came across a single studio portrait of three children that didn’t seem to fit in with the others, chiefly because of the children’s dress:

Three children standing for a portrait.
Photograph from the Isabelle Perkinson Williamson papers.

Turning it over, I observed a stamp from the Red Cross Bureau of Photography, and the address of a Madame Bras in France:

Writing and stamp on back of photograph.
Back of photograph from the Isabelle Perkinson Williamson papers.

An online investigation using the negative number on the print and key words such as “Red Cross photographs” quickly turned up a matching digitized glass plate negative, part of the Library of Congress’s American Red Cross negative collection of over 19,000 scanned images.

The caption reads: “Jeanne Le Bras, adopte.  Address: Mme. LeBras, Haut du Bourg Plogastel St. Germaine (Finistere Pres Guimper) protégé of: 302 Ambulance Co. Sanitary Train, Care Company Clerk.  American Expeditionary Forces .”  The photographer is recorded as Joseph A. Collin, who took many of the images found in the Red Cross collection.

Here’s what I learned from the Library of Congress site and other resources: in the aftermath of World War I, whose events we continue to commemorate in 2019, thousands of refugee families and orphaned children were “adopted” by American troops and cared for by American Red Cross staff.  The Red Cross hired professional photographers to document the organization’s efforts in Europe; they took hundreds of portraits of refugees and orphan children.  The images may have been used in many ways: to find lost families; to publicize children available for adoption, or to record their successful adoption.  As an interesting sidelight, I discovered that one of these photographers was Lewis Hine; his camera recorded over 1100 images for the Red Cross and are also part of the Library of Congress collection.

Lewis Hine was a gifted portraitist, reflected in his work for the Red Cross.

Some of the images in the Library of Congress Red Cross collection show signs of heavy editing: children were erased from group portraits, perhaps because they had already been adopted, and in some cases, adult figures blocked out.  The latter was a common practice of the 19th century – explore this phenomenon by searching online for “hidden mothers photography.”

Child with partially erased adult.
Photograph with erased adult from the Library of Congress Red Cross photograph collection. Title: “Deverge, Simmone Brux (Vienne) Depot Q.M., APO 702,” 1919.
Young child and erased child.
Photograph with erased child from the Library of Congress Red Cross photograph collection. Title: “Marie Brunel. Address: 67 route d Bourbourg Cordekerone (Nord) protege of: Battery A.3 Anticraft Bn. CAC, American Expeditionary Forces,” 1919.

 

The Library of  Congress caption for the single image found in the Rubenstein collection names only one child out of the three, Jeanne; it is not clear which one was Jeanne, but one hopes that all three were adopted and raised by kind families.  Also a mystery is how the photograph came to live with the others in the Isabelle Williamson collection.  It may have originated from Isabelle’s husband, who served in World War I, or from a friend of the family, Mary Peyton, who was a field nurse in World War I.

There is an abundance of primary source material on World War I in the Duke Libraries – images as well as papers.  “Views of the Great War,” a Rubenstein Library online exhibit, is a great way to learn more about this world-changing event as revealed through our collections.

For more information on the Isabelle Williamson collection, see the collection guide.

Library of Congress, American Red Cross Digital Collection

Women’s Work in the Woods: Women Loggers During World War I

Post contributed by Jessica Janecki, Rare Materials Cataloger

Today’s blog post features a photograph album of 20 gelatin silver prints that depict women loggers at work in England during World War I. This item is from the  Lisa Unger Baskin Collection which documents women’s work across the centuries, from the 13th to the 20th. We chose to highlight this photograph album because it unites two of the Rubenstein’s collecting areas, women’s history and documentary photography.

Red leather spine of book.
The Great War: Glimpses of Women’s Work in the Woods.

Although the title, Glimpses of Women’s Work in the Woods, verges on the whimsical, these photographs show young women hard at work doing the grueling manual labor that, until the Great War, had been done almost exclusively by men.

Woman swinging axe.
Timber felling near Petworth. A typical feller using her axe on a small fir tree.

The women depicted in the photographs were members of the Timber Corps. During World War I, forestry, like many male-dominated industries, was left critically under-staffed and the British government encouraged women to do their part for the war effort by taking on these vital jobs. The images show women loggers felling trees with hand-axes and saws, trimming and “barking” felled trees, carrying logs, and driving horses. These photographs were taken in the summer of 1918 around the towns of Petworth and Heathfield in Sussex, England.

Photograph of tree falling and women fellers.
The tree falling.
Photograph of 6 women scraping the bark off three logs.
Heathfield. “Barking.”
5 women carrying a log.
Heathfield. Carrying the poles out of the wood.
Photograph of two horses and two women.
Timber felling near Petworth. Horse girls bringing logs down to railroad.

These images were captured by Horace Nicholls, a British documentary photographer and photojournalist. He had been a war correspondent during the Second Boer War and later returned to England to work as a photojournalist. Prevented from serving in World War I due to his age, in 1917 he became an official photographer for the Ministry of Information and the Imperial War Museum, documenting life on the home front.

The series was not issued commercially and the album in the Baskin Collection appears to be a unique production. The 20 gelatin silver prints are carefully mounted on cream card stock with gilt edges. The binding is full red leather with the title in gold on the front cover and spine. Each print has a hand lettered caption. Click this link to view the full catalog record.

Percy and Ella Sykes: A Photographic Journey Through Chinese Turkestan

Post contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist

This post is part of “An Instant Out of Time: Photography at the Rubenstein Library” blog series

A recently acquired photograph album offers a study of the landscape, culture, and the realities of travel in a remote region in the steppes of Central Asia, through the camera of British Army officer Sir Percy Molesworth Sykes.  Charged as acting Consul-General in Chinese Turkestan, now Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, Sykes had to travel from England to the capital city of Kashgar.  In an unusual turn of events for the time, he was accompanied on this arduous overland journey by his sister, Ella Constance Sykes, also a Fellow of the Geographical Society and a well-regarded writer on Iran.

In March 1915, when the two set off for their arduous nine-month journey, World War I was in full tilt, thus their northerly route through Norway.  Meanwhile, in Central Asia, after decades of conflict which included the Crimean War, Russians, Turks, English, Chinese, and British Empire troops from India, were still grappling to extend their control over these strategically important regions.  Lieutenant Colonel Sykes’ camera recorded the presence of these nationalities.

Chinese troops lined up with bayonets and drummer boys.

Three Russian officials standing together, a camel passes by in the background.

 

In researching this collection of photographs, I discovered that brother and sister also recorded their experiences in a co-authored travel memoir, Through deserts and oases of Central Asia (1920, available online); it includes many of the photographs found in the album.  To find a written companion piece to a photograph album is a stroke of luck, as with its help I could confirm dates, locations, and a historical context for the photographs found in the album.

Ella Sykes wrote Part I of the memoir, which describes the journey in vivid detail, and her brother, Part II, which focuses on the region’s geography, history, and culture.  In her narrative, Ella occasionally recounts taking photographs of various scenes, such as the image on page 92 of women at a female saint’s shrine.  A note in the image index states that “The illustrations, with one exception, are from reproductions of photographs taken by the authors” (emphasis mine); clearly, some of the book’s illustrations are her work.  The question arises, did she take any of the images found in the album?

Of the photographs in the album that also appear in the Sykes’ book, several are found in the section written by Ella, leading one to think perhaps she took them, including a different version of this group, found in the album:

Kirghiz women standing together in front of a yurt.

However, the title of the photograph album, handwritten in beautiful calligraphic script, states: “Photographs taken by Lt. Col. Sir Percy Sykes to illustrate Chinese Turkestan, the Russian Pamirs and Osh, April-November, 1915.”Title page of photo album.

With this title in hand and my cataloging hat on, and without firm evidence of Ella’s hand in the album’s images, I officially record Sir Percy Sykes as the album’s sole creator.

Through researching the context for Percy Sykes’ photograph album (a copy of which is also held by the British Library), I learned a bit about the history of the region and of his role in the administration of British affairs.  I was also serendipitously introduced to Ella Sykes.  Even though in her fifties when she traveled, she clearly had great stamina as a horsewoman and adventurer, and was a keen observer of the people, landscapes, and animals she encountered.  Sir Percy writes in the book’s preface: “To my sister belongs the honour of being the first Englishwoman to cross the dangerous passes leading to and from the Pamirs, and, with the exception of Mrs. Littledale, to visit Khotan.” (p. vi)  Ella Sykes was a founding member of the Royal Central Asian Society and a member of the Royal Geographical Society as well.  She died in 1939 in London, while her brother Percy died in 1945, also in London.

For more information about the photograph album, see the collection guide.  The album is non-circulating but is available to view in the Rubenstein Library reading room.  It joins other Rubenstein photography collections documenting the history of adjacent regions in the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, India, and China.

Additional links:

Photograph portrait, reportedly of Ella Sykes, from the Long Riders Guild of travel narratives.

Some biographical information was taken courtesy of:  Denis Wright, “SYKES, Ella Constance,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2008, viewed December 10, 2018, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/sykes-ella-constance