William Gedney: Photographs of the San Francisco Diggers

(October, 1966 to January, 1967)

William Gale Gedney (1932-89) was a remarkable artist who never achieved wide recognition during his lifetime. In the past few years, his work has gained a certain momentum. This resurgence in Gedney interest has coincided with a major museum exhibition (at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art in 2000) along with publication of a book of his photographs (What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney, edited by Margaret Sartor) and the major online web archive of his work that was installed in 1999 at Duke University's Special Collections Library.

Bill Gedney (as his friends called him) was an immersion photographer. He jumped into and shared the lives of his subjects to a level of intimacy that few photographers would dare to risk. Bill's most recognized work stems from journeys he made away from his native Brooklyn to ever-further locales, documenting through his eyes those lives he shared if ever so briefly. Kentucky, San Francisco, and India -- these were the three stops where he completed some of his most haunting work.

In 1966, Bill received a Guggenheim fellowship to photograph "American life". Gedney left Brooklyn and drove cross-country to the West Coast, and ended up in San Francisco in October, 1966. He spent the next three-plus months in California, taking several thousand photographs of the people he met and the activities that he observed. As he did earlier when he traveled to Kentucky (in 1964) Bill lived as close to his subjects as possible. In Kentucky, he moved in with a coalminer family. In San Francisco, he moved in with a crash pad family. He followed this group of approximately six young street people as they moved through the Haight Ashbury. Through these experiences, Bill was exposed to the street life as no other photographer did. 

In early November, 1966, Bill first came into contact with the Diggers. (The dating is through his notebooks, of which I will discuss more soon.) Over the next two months, he photographed the Free Food gatherings on two different occasions, he photographed the Free Store on Frederick Street on two different occasions, and he photographed Diggers on Haight Street as he walked along the street, hanging out with the scene that was coalescing at this time, prior to the media onslaught that would occur within six months.

There are several amazing facets about Gedney's work, in my opinion. First of all, he was a meticulous and devoted scribbler. He kept notebooks that he used to jot down the date, the subject of the work he was photographing that day, even to the level of the numbered roll of film and the F-stop and shutter speed settings he used. The second amazing fact is that Duke University's Special Collections Library has, in what is most assuredly a parallel level of meticulousness as Gedney's original work, scanned many of the pages of his notebooks and made them available on the web site. Additionally, these archival saints have scanned most of Gedney's original contact sheets that he used to choose which images to use for working prints.

Reading through Gedney's notebooks from his 1966 trip is where I discovered that he had become acquainted with the Diggers. Once I had the clues that Bill left in his notebook entries, I was able to piece together the photos in the contact sheets. In all the articles that I have read about Bill Gedney, I have not seen one mention of the Diggers. It just goes to show, if you know what you're looking for, you will find gold on the trail that others have trod many times before.

This then is my hope -- to be able to present the photographs that Bill Gedney took in November 1966 to January 1967 of the Diggers in the Haight Ashbury. This is a very special period that Gedney visited in the Digger chronology. Free Food had barely begun four to six weeks earlier than the first time Gedney shot their small gathering in the Panhandle. He also wrote his own reflections on what was happening, and I will copy excerpts here as well to provide insight to his perspective of this subject.


No. Subject Notes  
C/S/F: 1368/4509/5 Arriving at Panhandle Free Food Event The young man is apparently from the previous frames in Tracy's Donut Shop.  
C/S/F: 1368/4510/6 Serving Free Food at the Panhandle A woman is ladling Digger Stew from the large milk can.

C/S/F: 1368/4510/7 Serving Free Food at the Panhandle A group stands around the Digger milk can.  
C/S/F: 1368/4510/8 Free Food at the Panhandle A group stands, mostly with backs to the camera, at the Digger Free Food in the Panhandle.  
C/S/F: 1368/4510/9 Serving Free Food at the Panhandle A group stands around the Digger milk can and one man is ladling out Digger stew.  
C/S/F: 1368/4510/10 Serving Free Food at the Panhandle A group (different individuals from previous frame) stands around the Digger milk can and one man is ladling out Digger stew into a bowl.  
C/S/F: 1368/4510/11 Laying on the grass at the Free Food gathering in the Panhandle A man stretches out on the grass. In the near background, a group is standing, with only legs visible in the photograph.  
C/S/F: 1368/4511/12 Sitting on the grass at the Free Food gathering in the Panhandle A man is sitting on the grass with a briefcase in hand. The briefcase has a sign attached to one side.(It appears that the sign reads, "The British Embassy".  
C/S/F: 1370/4525/31 Viewing from a distance a group of people at a Free Food gatheirig in the Panhandle. The group of people are standing under trees. (Note that this photo is preceeded by several on the street, probably Haight. Check to see if any of these are of Diggers.) Also note that this group of photos on CS # 1370 appears to be a separate occasion from those depicted on CS # 1368.  
C/S/F: 1370/4525/32 A group stands around eating at a Free Food gathering in the Panhandle One young man appears to have a bowl and spoon and another has a cup in hand waiting to get access to the Digger milk can (not visible)  
The Digger Archives is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Cite As: The Digger Archives (www.diggers.org) / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / All other uses must receive permission. Contact: curator at diggers dot org.