A Time of Youth: San Francisco, 1966-1967 by William Gedney brings together eighty-seven of the more than two thousand photographs Gedney took in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood between October 1966 and January 1967 while on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In these photographs Gedney documents the restless and intertwined lives of the disenchanted youth who flocked to what became the epicenter of 1960s counterculture.
William Gedney intended to publish the series as a book and completed a draft design in 1969. Gedney also wrote a formal statement about the project and notes on his preferred scale and dimensions for the book. Sadly Gedney was never able to publish A Time of Youth in his lifetime. However, his original design, notes, and prints are preserved and accessible at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, which is where Lisa McCarty first encountered A Time of Youth in 2014.
More than fifty years after Gedney completed the design, A Time of Youth has finally been published. We’re pleased to share a conversation between McCarty, the book’s editor, and the designer, Amy Ruth Buchanan, about how they realized Gedney’s vision for the publication.
Lisa: I remember the first time I visited the Press and presented the photographs from A Time of Youth and Gedney’s notes on the book design. There were audible ooh’s and ahh’s as I moved through my slideshow. Was there something specific about the San Francisco photographs that captured your attention? Or was it the knowledge of a dormant publication and Gedney’s struggle to publish them that you found compelling?
Amy: Absolutely both! I had known and loved Gedney’s work for a while, a love likely rooted in my long-ago subscription to DoubleTake magazine, as well as my familiarity with the earlier book What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney, edited by Geoff Dyer and Margaret Sartor. But the show you mounted at Perkins Library and the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library in the fall of 2015 was a big deal. Before seeing that exhibit, I didn’t really know about his work as a designer, his meticulous notebooks and his carefully planned maquettes for proposed books. As a lover of photography and book design, it was poignant and inspiring to see these items from the collection. When I heard you were in discussions with the Press to bring us one or more of these never-realized books, I was thrilled.
And then, yes, the photos themselves are completely captivating. So intimate and textured. Some of the young people appear again and again so they are like characters in a novella. He mentions this himself in one of the notebook pages you reproduce: “I am attempting a literary form in visual terms I am telling a story with characters that reappear and scenes that are repeated.”
Do you know if any of these people have been tracked down as Gedney’s work has garnered more and more attention? I wonder what they thought of Gedney.
Lisa: I’m so glad you remember the exhibition I organized of Gedney’s book designs and that it made an impact on you. Intimate Gestures: Handmade Books by William Gedney, was the first exhibit to highlight Gedney’s work as a designer and book artist. So many artists and curators came to know Gedney through Dyer and Sartor’s book, and later the book that the photographer Alec Soth edited. But very few people know about Gedney’s commitment to books or that there are seven complete book designs in his archive. I hope A Time of Youth begins to reveal this other side of Gedney’s artistic practice.
But in terms of the people depicted in A Time of Youth, during my time as curator of Gedney’s archive from 2014-2019 unfortunately I never encountered any of his subjects/collaborators from San Francisco. There are many names of Gedney’s contacts in his journals and notebooks, but these names were not correlated with the images themselves. However, Gedney did met and spent a significant amount of time with the philosopher Eric Hoffer and his companion Lili Osborne while he was in San Francisco. Gedney actually corresponded with them for many years afterwards.
You’ve been able to work on several photography books for the Press, but A Time of Youth presented specific challenges and rewards. This is a posthumous publication, which precluded direct collaboration with the artist. And as editor, my concept was to preserve as many of William Gedney’s decisions as possible. Was this a daunting or exciting prospect for you as a designer?
Amy: Very daunting but I also felt confident that between the two of us, we could do the project justice. The question for each decision along the way was: how prescriptive was his choice here? How closely must we follow it? The starting place was the trim size: the maquettes are 8.5 inches square. We agreed from the very start that maintaining the square trim was important, but did it need to be exactly 8.5 inches? I knew a book that small would be lovely and unusual, but in the end we decided to go just a little bigger, 9” square, to give us room for the photos sized generously with handsome white margins.
Translating Gedney’s cover sketch into the final jacket was another challenge. His sketch includes hand-drawn type, as would have been the norm for a book designer at that time. The italic letterforms reminded me of a Bodoni typeface, with the exaggerated contrast of thick & thin strokes and the distinctive, jaunty little upstrokes on the italics. I chose another typeface, Kepler, from the same family as Bodoni, the Didones. Kepler is named for the German mathematician Johannes Kepler—I think Gedney, the meticulous planner, might have liked that (I’m thinking of his notebook pages on Japanese bookbinding styles).
Throughout, of course, I relied on you, Lisa, as the Gedney expert to give feedback on many choices, big and small. You are also an artist and photographer yourself, so I knew you’d have helpful feedback on the image reproductions.
Did you find it hard to know where to draw the line when deciding how (and how much) to adjust his images for printing?
Lisa: In my mind, this was a HUGE responsibility and something I took very seriously. It was easy to establish that we shouldn’t crop ANYTHING and that we needed to preserve the sequence of the images. We also agreed that the documents and ephemera from Gedney’s journals shouldn’t be “cleaned up” or made to appear like fresh new paper.
But admittedly there were moments in the editing of the photographs themselves where I studied a dust spot (to make sure it was a dust spot) much longer than was probably necessary or I when I toggled changes in the tonal range repeatedly to make sure I wasn’t losing any information. But, this kind of meticulous work is something I do in the editing of my own photographs as well. So it was a familiar process with just a bit more weight to it. As an artist I know how important each of these decisions are and how they can affect the interpretation of the image.
We both agreed pretty quickly that the project ephemera should be featured prominently in the book. Were Gedney’s notes and journals inspiring? And is it difficult to work with ephemera in the design and printing process?
Amy: Oh I love working with ephemera. It’s such a gift to have this look into his life as a working artist. I love nothing more than hearing someone else’s shoptalk and these notebooks are very shoptalky! I am glad we were able to keep those images in full color. We had them carefully silhouetted so that the papers would sort of float on the white page—they have such presence. I can’t remember who pointed it out to me—you, or one of our designers, or both, but I love how the book ends with the word, “Wow,” in Gedney’s hand.
Lisa: Yes! Concluding the book with the “Wow” entry from Gedney’s handwritten list of “words used in San Francisco” was definitely intentional. I wanted Gedney to have the first and last words in the book, and the “Wow” entry seemed like a perfect ending.
Amy: I am always fascinated by writers and researchers who get to immerse themselves in an archive. I imagine it is by turns overwhelming, intoxicating, emotional, and tedious. Do you remember moments from your early encounters with the Gedney archive?
Lisa: Oh, yes! I remember the first time I saw the book projects and A Time of Youth particularly. It was during my first month, maybe even the first few weeks, on the job as curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts in the Rubenstein Library back in 2014. I was getting a tour of the Technical Services department where archives are housed and cataloged. Before I started the job, the Library had decided to prioritize the Gedney’s archive for re-housing (getting new boxes, folders, ect.) and the boxes lined a long row of 8-foot-tall library shelves. I was familiar with Gedney’s work from studying with Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, and had used the Gedney collection in the reading room of the Library. But I hadn’t seen the archive laid out all together at once until that moment. It was overwhelming at first, but also so inspiring.
At first, I didn’t know where to begin. What box do you open when presented with a wall of nearly 60,000 items made by one person over the course of a lifetime? I scanned the labels on the MANY boxes and saw one labeled “Book Projects.” I was working on my own first book of photographs at the time, and the prospect of a Gedney book piqued my curiosity. I pulled the box off the shelf and was treated to a treasure trove. I think I stayed the rest of the afternoon to look at everything. This first encounter was really one of those magical and revelatory research moments. I felt lucky, inspired, surprised, and a little melancholy all at once; these beautiful books had been completed and dormant for so long. I knew on the spot that the finished book should be published.
Amy: There’s an intriguing note in one of the journal pages about the difficulty of working in spreads, that the need to have two images on a spread that are “congenial” with one another might occasionally mean you put in “a lot of pictures that are only half as good.” I can’t really imagine which ones he is talking about. Do you have a favorite pairing from his sequence?
Lisa: I love that note too! Gedney was perhaps his own toughest critic, but I think this made him an extraordinary editor of his own work. There’s so many interesting and sensitive pairings, but my personal favorite is the spread with the two different couples entwined on opposite pages.