The Queer Gaze: How the Photography of William Gedney Taught Me to Look
Gedney immortalizes the carefree embraces between bodies of men who lean into one another in gentle, carefree repose.
“It is dangerous to leave one’s country, but still more dangerous to go back to it.”
—James Joyce (1909)
The summer after I graduated high school, my father offered me a trip to Europe. He’d cover my expenses if I wanted to backpack my way through the ancient cities I’d fallen in love with in my Latin classes. I was touched by his generosity. In hindsight, I think he wanted me to see myself. He wanted to be the one to show me. He wanted me to see myself reflected in history, even if these beautiful cities were littered with ruins. I told my father thank you, but no thank you. I passed on the chance, too afraid of leaving home. But also, too afraid of asking for a plane ticket to India instead.
Two years ago, while applying to doctoral programs in anthropology, I struggled to craft a project proposal that I imagined would sustain my intellectual curiosity for so long. Ultimately, I kept my sights small, narrowing my focus of research to gay culture in New York. Faculty encouraged me to expand my horizons. Faced with the possibility and even the injunction to leave home, however, I crumbled. The thought of engaging with the fundamental ethnographic tenet of dépaysement (feeling “out of place”) terrified me. One acceptance letter arrived that spring, with no guaranteed funding, and I refused the offer. “Being there,” itself a condition for conducting fieldwork and writing with authority, still haunts me.
With the support of a Fulbright Fellowship, the queer photographer William Gedney made two extended trips to India, in 1969-1971 and 1979-1980. On the train to Calcutta, he stopped in the sacred city of Benares, situated on the banks of the Ganges, and was so stunned by the scenes he saw that he stayed for fourteen months. What he documented were “tiny, arresting pockets of stasis in the streets,” a kind of “refined languor.” Gedney, who died in 1989 of AIDS-related complications, is remembered by those close to him as a photographer of “unusual grace and tenderness,” an artist with a “deep understanding of the nature of solitude.” His documentarian eye revealed to viewers an India ennobled by its lyricism.
I first encountered Gedney’s work when I learned it was on exhibition in Mumbai. I didn’t get there, but instead sought out What Was True, an edited volume of Gedney’s photos and writings, published in 2000, in a section of the New York University library that I’d never ventured into—oversized books. I stored this compendium, edited by the scholar Margaret Sartor, on my bookshelf for months. When the book was recalled by another borrower, months later, I finally found the impetus to read it. I photocopied as much of Gedney’s life as I could, but the oversized pages of his oeuvre kept getting truncated at the margins. While I didn’t shrink the scale, I did manage to make double-sided copies, only to realize that many of the pages waiting for me in the paper tray were out of order. Page numbers were missing, cut off from the corners. Did 88, 89, 90 go forward in Gedney’s life or backward? The reproduction I had in my hands, poring over the photocopies, came to me as shadowed, full of gaps, hopelessly fractured.
Sometimes I forget that I’ve never been to India. For decades, I’ve wandered through the country’s ancient streets and alleyways, those narrowest of narrow paths of possibility, but only in my mind. I’m so used to deferring the drive to travel there that I catch myself wishing I will never actually arrive. It’s more pleasurable to hold off traveling. My longing to see a place where I might claim to have roots is intimately bound with expectation and disappointment.
I wonder if it’s even possible to say that I do not seek out India in the flesh because I would rather look cautiously at what I do not want. I would rather glare at my own refusal. It is in this quiet turning away that I’m reminded of sex. Bodies that delay gratification, that prolong pleasure and put off the eventual onset of ecstacy and release are those that understand how to endure. What bodies do within Gedney’s photographs, moreover, suggests not only patience against the ravages of labor, marginalization, and class struggle. Moreover, their bodies on film expose the full range of human articulation. A young man sleeps in a rickshaw on a street at night, his limbs arranged awkwardly—and yet it must be comforting to him to contort his body into such angles, to wring his joints so. Men with narrow frames squat on their haunches along the ghats of the Ganges, sitting in silent contemplation, while elderly women shrouded in white saris nestle themselves neatly into doorways.
Gedney captures not only those in search of peace amidst the frenetic energy of the city. He also immortalizes the carefree embraces between bodies, especially those of men who lean into and lie next to one another in gentle, carefree repose. His work attends to these nuanced forms: draped limbs, set into relaxed, natural rhythms. Writes Sartor, “I could also hear the silence, what was held back, hints of an unreachable place . . . [T]he body revealing what the heart might want—and want to hide.”
What, then, does it mean to look at what we most desire? For years I’d drowned myself in everything new, vulgar, and provocative that the fashion industry promulgated. I was lovesick. Although I left the industry five years ago, it was only a few months ago that I, in a fit of frustration and resignation, gathered the stacks of international fashion magazines beneath my bed, thick, glossy tomes that weighed a ton, and tossed them out. And to this day, images of thirst traps slip through the algorithms of my Instagram. I’ll never know how this keeps happening. Yet the safety and privacy of a phone, or a magazine stashed under a bed, allows that which is impossibly beautiful to be fawned over.
But is there something to be said for placing distance between what we most desire? The camera afforded both nearness to, and detachment from, Gedney’s subjects, the people who inhabited India’s teeming streets. Writing does the same for me. To reach is to ask, “is that all there is?” So in the absence of a funded anthropological project, I’ve started on the hazarded path of inventing India, in the sense of fiction, that which is fashioned. I’ve foregone becoming an authority: With imagination comes the risk and embarrassment of getting a place wrong, of representing it unfaithfully.
Like an elegy, Gedney rendered India solely in black and white. His work affords me the privilege to leave India suspended in a sort of timeless time. Writes Gedney in his notebooks, “All Indians are adept in the draping of fabric, even the lowest and poorest of men can wear a rag with style, a simple piece of cloth can be made elegant by the way it is folded over the body, by the way it hangs and moves with the human frame.” While Gedney’s commitment to finding grace in even the humblest subject is admirable, I’m nervous to suggest that the photos I find beautiful are beautiful because they romanticize poverty, or the inability of the poor to keep up with fleeting Western trends. But oh, how classic Gedney makes India appear—the drapes and folds of starched white cotton against the backdrop of stone ruins . . . It’s as if I might arrive at each photograph in my mind, and in reality, as if I’m not actually out of time, or out of place. As if I’m not arriving at a part of who I am as I were foreign to myself. I’d rather recognize India as I so choose, rather than encounter a place so strange I forget who I am. I want all the grace of Gedney’s photos to greet me whenever I touch down on India’s arid plains.
That’s why it’s tempting to relive a dream over and over, and never ruin what I know is already the mean truth. After the ravages of colonialism, how can a nation hold its head high enough to see its independence as anything but disappointment and failure? So many of Gedney’s subjects lie sleeping in the streets, or next to the holy river, as if their country has sapped all their strength and faith.
The Latin word memini sounds just like what it means, “remember,” probably because at the root of both words is men/mem, an ancient sound linked to “mind.” Consider “mentor,” for instance: a person who shows someone how to think. Queer people have to find mentors in order to be shown how to develop their aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities. This process is never finished, but rather, the act of cultural transmission is ongoing. What I love about the verb memini, then, is that it’s a word formed by repeating the root, thus conveying the sense of something done over and over. Memory is that which is called to mind time and again. Queer people must relive and rewrite their understanding of cultures we were for centuries cut off from in order to imagine a future we can inhabit. But perhaps the most interesting facet of the word memini is that it’s perfect in form—that is to say, it’s conjugated in the past tenses only—and yet it’s present in meaning. One remembers what is past in order to lend a shape to the world we bring into being.
The American writer Eliot Weinberger stitched together a series of fantastical, orientalizing depictions of India, derived from historical accounts written between 1000 and 1492. This essay, “The Dream of India,” alludes to rumors of strange races of people with unusual numbers of fingers and toes and strangely colored hair, who are simultaneously wanton and, according to another unnamed source, who don’t engage in adultery. Weinberger, however, recognizes that some of these lurid accounts have an element of truth to them. Indeed, “on one day of the year [Indians] light innumerable lamps of oil.” (Diwali.)
“In India the dead are mourned for by women, who stand around the body, naked to the waist, and beat their breasts, crying, ‘Alas! Alas!’” (Surely, this isn’t the word they used, but it’s possible the women of medieval India left their breasts uncovered, as art from the time portrays.)
“In India it is very crowded, for the people are of a sort who are loathe to leave their own country.” (I’m unsure what to make of this claim, but it haunts me thoroughly.)
But the question still haunts me: What’s the risk of relying on the accounts of others? What does it mean to trust Gedney’s artistic sensibility toward India instead of my own? And perhaps more disconcertingly, what does mean that his India is set within an “ethnographic present”? The allure (by which I mean both “draw” and “danger”) of Gedney’s photographs is that they risk slipping into an unmarked time, or worse, a pre-modern conception of time. My photocopies of What Was True are in shades of grey, just as Gedney’s work transformed India’s garish colors into black and white. The photos, like their auteur, are out of time, unable to be tied to a news cycle.
Shades of light and dark, however, create a portrait of India that is more pleasurable to me than, say, those of Raghubir Singh, who embraced, and showed the world, the streets of India in lush Technicolor. But color is rife with anxiety: Color correction keeps us guessing about the blurred line between exactitude and truth. What’s more, Singh, in his 1998 volume River of Color, accurately reckons with the camera as a technology of colonialism, a surveying instrument that rendered the possibility of India and the rich tradition of miniature painting into stark, deathly landscapes. The optimism of India’s spirit was demolished. The West, sanctioning black-and-white photography as the only mode of perception, obscured all the vibrancy, confusion, and joy of Indian ways of life.
It’s Gedney’s lyrical and distanced perspective, however, that hews closer to the filter I prefer placing over India. Color drained Gedney, who writes of its frenzies: “The vision is exhausting, the masses of Asia weigh down on you, you see too much, your eyes want rest.” His black-and-white photos thus provide the respite to see India anew. At the same time, though, they allow the slippage to conceive of India as a certain number of degrees away from reality. The melancholy of his perspective recalls, not uncontroversially, nostalgia for Old World imperialism. But more than that, the shades of grey reflect a commitment to working within the tradition of colonial photography while also subverting the codes of the Western gaze. Gedney’s attention is tender, sensitive, and graceful, intelligent. With granular and nuanced insight, Gedney’s work teaches us to see up-close, and to listen to quiet for signs of disquiet.
Talk of a trip to India arises among my family once or twice a year. It’s more an idea casually thrown around than an effort toward proactive planning. And yet, these conversations, over the course of a lifetime, have seemed to add up to the equivalent of traveling to India and back. I have gleaned an understanding of my father as loathing to revisit the country’s crowded, corrupt classes of people. I have formed a portrait of my mother as resigned to revisit India as merely a dream. But all seriousness, drive, and will are lacking. It’s possible that we linger and tarry because my parents refuse to let me feel disappointed at the wretched condition their homeland has fallen into. I’ve been denied the humanity of India.
Gedney writes, “I have spoken of India as a bittersweet land. It grows increasingly bitter for me. I have never let the bitterness show in my work.” This is a quote I’ve taken down three times in three different places. Gedney himself copied out his own notes into notebooks on notebooks, striving ever closer to precision. These notes formed a subtext to a longer, deeper narrative that ran throughout his photographic work. As Geoff Dyer writes in his essay “A Long Patience,” “Like an ascetic cleric in the Dark Ages, [Gedney] transcribed other people’s words, making them his own, customizing them, on occasions, to render them more appropriate to his own situation.” In a way, then, I’ve made my parents’ words my own. And I’ve made Gedney’s images the ones I myself see on the backs of my eyelids when I think of India, like a projector screen stuck on a loop in the wrong classroom.
But perhaps I copy Gedney’s words because I believe his words more than my own. And why shouldn’t I? He was there, as were my parents. What’s more, Gedney was an autodidact. He taught himself how to look.
Queers beget queers through looking. The queer heart, after all, is an ever-seeking one, forever roving from shore to shore for traditions to follow. We look for mentors to follow. Those with experience look for fledglings to mold in their image. This restlessness, groping through dark straits and clandestine alleyways, is a continual process of discovery. Gedney himself, often traveling unseen and shooting India under the cover of darkness, sought belonging among the lives of strangers in India. And in Staten Island, he notes that two stray dogs adopted him when they showed up at his home. Queers, then, are people who ask: Where are those ancestors who can claim us as descendants? How do we know how to see the world? Artwork like Gedney’s photography, therefore, represents not only what needs to be seen, but what needs to be felt. Through the grace of his artistic approach, Gedney speaks truth to a history of touch, an intimate journey through bodies that long to be shared and known.
Touch and contagion were, however, the very things that decimated whole communities of queer people for decades. How, then, could Gedney touch others, and be touched himself? Photography afforded him the privilege of gazing at others while standing, unnoticed, at the margins of his subjects’ lives. Quoting Kennedy Fraser in The New Yorker, in 1982, Gedney writes in his notebooks, “If we know the skills of passing within a hairsbreadth [sic] of our fellows without touching, there is no taboo against looking.”
The camera roll on my phone is hopelessly disorganized, scattered. It resists tidy categorization. Random images litter this archive, if one can call it that. They appear haphazardly, like squares of light and blurred flashes of activity, amidst the photos I meant to take myself. These snatches seem trapped, sneaking their way into my camera roll. They happen when my hand, strangely articulated, grips my phone in the middle of another task and the seeking, roving eye of the camera awakens, hungry to survey. In these fevered lapses of technical skill, it’s not I who controls what the camera scans and captures. I am left to reckon with strange, fragmented reminders of my day, which is made especially more strange because I’m not entirely sure anything I see during the span of whole days is worth photographing.
What all this leaves me with is a sort of empty record of life. Tonight, as I write this essay, I’m missing an important fundraising event my office has spent months putting together. It’s no matter: The photos I’ll see tomorrow will bore me, records of a celebration I take no credit for or pride in. I myself won’t take any pictures or post to social media—I wouldn’t have done it had I even attended. I’m wary of my ability to seize a moment and translate it into a communicable object, a photograph worth sharing. I don’t take or store many pictures.
But my partner does. Nikhil has a curious eye, always striving to get better at how he uses it. His photographs of skylines and Central Park landscapes, his selfies sitting in the delicate light of a blue night, almost everything from his perspective is stunning. Every photo stuns because it renders the quotidian enchanting.