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Character Study: 1964

"Cornett family, Kentucky, 1964." One of the Cornett boys on the front porch after working hard at something. Print from 35mm negative by William Gedney. Gedney Photographs and Writings Collection, Duke University. View full size.

"Cornett family, Kentucky, 1964." One of the Cornett boys on the front porch after working hard at something. Print from 35mm negative by William Gedney. Gedney Photographs and Writings Collection, Duke University. View full size.

On Shorpy:
Today’s Top 5

William Gedney

I was surprised when I saw the work of Bill Gedney, years after I knew him as “Mr. Gedney,” my photography teacher at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY. He rarely, if ever showed his work to us. His classes were focused (bad pun) on us and how to improve our photographic vision. I liked him a lot – he was soft spoken and kind unlike the abrasive/aggressive nature some of the others in the photography department. One of my proudest moments: when he approved of my photo essay of my sister and her husband’s move from apartment to their first house. They weren't “pretty pictures,” but captured a significant moment in time, much like his own series of the rural families. It was indeed an honor and pleasure to have worked with “Mr. Gedney.”

Kindred Spirit

In 1964 I was very close to this guy in age, economic prosperity, and work opportunities. One difference was that I was in rural Alabama rather than Kentucky. I am not embarrassed by the type work I used to do, but I am thankful to now have a physically less demanding job. My electrical engineering degree helped to ease my way into middle class status. I would like to know what happened to this guy after the picture was made. I hope that he has been as fortunate in life as I have been.

Bah, humbug

Sorry guys - but - by about the 3rd picture I didn't want anymore Cornett Family either. There's an affected bleakness about these pictures that just makes me wanna smack somebody, probably the photographer. A couple of the girls snuck in a smile . .probably when the photographer was off-guard. Good for them, probably blew the whole theme for Gedney though. Are we going to get any Cornett pictures without the "o I see misery, that makes me profound" motif? Goodness, beauty and truth are also part of the human experience, ya know. I mean, just sayin'. There's nothing wrong with honest dirt. /end tirade.

["Misery"? What misery? - Dave]


I look at this photo and see a very handsome man. In this day and age, its hard for a girl to find a guy that doesn't mind rolling up his sleeves and getting dirty to get the job done. The ruggedness of his features makes him attractive.

My cousins from Martin County.

Just like him. high-school "diploma," willfully ignorant, hopped up on Baptist prayer meetin's, and just as happy as can be that they'll be able to get a job in the mines just like Daddy and Granddaddy, both of whom got the Black Lung from too much coal and too many Camels. And it's still like that there. WTF, America? Seriously ...

[Inane Comment of the Day! - Dave]

Every time

I look at this photo I think of James Jones' star-crossed Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt in "From Here To Eternity." In fact, I think I'll pull out my battered copy of that book and re-read it for about the fifteenth time.

The old adage

says that when you point your finger at somebody, THREE fingers point back at you.

These pictures of the Cornett family are a vivid portrayal of an important part of the American Experience. The photos are illuminating and often a work of art, as this particular picture is.

This is my very favorite historical/picture blog. Keep up the GREAT work, Dave!

Am I the only one

... or do you see a resemblance too?

[Maybe that's toner on his face. - Dave]

Another '"Yeah! What HE said!"

These photos are great. Keep them coming. Anyone who could see someone capable of murder or abuse when looking at this photo is someone or find this series creepy is one who only has to look in the mirror to see a real creep.

Street smart?

I have finally given up reading the comments on this picture. The one that really bugs me is the person who thinks this face belongs to a criminal. Obviously someone who has no street smarts. There is nothing sinister behind those eyes. And as for the people complaining about how sad these people must be, I ask why? Because they don't have all the luxuries of today that most people consider needful things when they are not? I have not seen a miserable face on any of the Cornett family. I am glad to have seen them and hope they all had or are having great lives.

The Best Hard Times

Odds are, in later years, these folks look back on this era as being some of the best times in their lives. I know that when I think back about my younger years, we lived in a tiny house, were raised by our divorced mom (two of us), and did not have extra money. We had lots of neighborhood friends, we always had three meals, and we always played outside. We were as happy as pigs in mud.

Undoubtedly a relative

I'm a member the Cornett family with strong ties in Kentucky (my dad's family is from Cumberland, although we live in Maryland now). Amazing seeing these shots. I never knew this guy but I have no doubt he's a cousin of some sort. Cornetts had our black sheep (what family doesn't?) but on the whole we're a hardworking breed who gets by the best we can.

Nothing More to Add

I'm disappointed in some of these comments but reassured that there are others who don't agree with the stereotyping and leaping from a photo to the "murder and abuse" branding. Ridiculous.

The Cornett defenders have said what I feel, but I found myself wanting to show my support for them, too. ("Yeah! What HE said!") Any way we could get a "like" button for Shorpy comments?

Hey Lou, don't look!! It's that easy.

Shoot, I was born in 1966, and there were a LOT of days I left work looking like that. It was either from working at the service station (yes, I used to pump Ethel), or at the sign shop. Sometimes, you just get dirty doing an honest days work. Painters get paint on themselves, and farmers get dirt on themselves. That's all.

Dave-Thanks a million for posting the Gedney shots, as well as all you have done with I scan your site every day looking for cool shots of insulators and feats of electrical engineering, but being a history buff in general, I get a real good feel for days of yesteryear.

Keep'em coming my good man!

[Now we know the reason for Ethel's mysterious smile. - Dave]

Definition of a redneck

The term is used to describe the hardworking man or woman who has labored, bent over, in the hot sun, and received the mother of all sunburns for their efforts. I don't know why it's bad to be called one. Sounds like a badge of honor to me. A few people who have posted here have more than likely never suffered anything more serious than a paper cut in their daily labors.

"Dirty jobs"

Late 70's spent my days baling hay and milking cows on our 4th generation dairy farm, my sisters and I would pack 1,000 bales or more of hay a day into the barn, under a hot tin roof in typical Ohio weather, 98 degrees and 98 humidity, "the sweaty armpit of America."

I now own that farm and my dad at 78 is out helping me milk the cows every day, because he wants to be useful. The comments on this list tell me that a whole lot of folks have never learned to appreciate a hard day's work. The feeling of sweat running down the crack of your a-- and hay chaff in places you never new it could go, the feeling of a good shower and sleep that comes from being tired and not from "sleep aids". The pride of good day's work, a full barn ready for winter, contented cows and a full belly produced from your own hands.

Keep posting these types of pictures, we need a reminder now and them. Like Mike Rowe keeps saying, this country needs people who will do the "dirty jobs."

Coal Dust

This young man has a right to be proud and you can see it in his eyes. He is covered with coal dust. That means he is making money--good money! Things sure have changed for today's young men. Not for the better.


Dave...You must be in Heaven! What a response to your Photos of the Cornett family!

I have commented, myself, before, and I am totally into this family, and have been for days. I just read through all of the comments and I think I could read on forever…they are such a mix of Brilliance, and, I am sorry to say this…total Stupidity, but that is in the Minority. Thank You, Dave!

But, I Think you, too, must be a bit amazed. What a great way to get people to come alive and Talk to a subject…if only we could continue the dialog…in so many other topics.

Folks, do not despair.

We still have plenty of hard-working young men and women like this young man in our America. Do not despair. We'll get through it.

to: A Certain Canadian

Shame on you! My parents lived in Minnesota during the depression, and we did not live much differently from this photo, but we had a happy family, we ate well, and we all grew up to be responsible adults. How dare you think that just because someone is poor, they are rednecks!

[What exactly constitutes being a redneck, and why is it bad to be one? - Dave]

A true portrait

I really hate reading some of the truly (literally) ignorant comments in this series.

If you want a real taste of what Eastern Kentuckians are really like, just consider that this man and his wife, unemployed and with 12 children, opened their home to a photographer (read: stranger) from Duke University with no pretense and showed him hospitality for 11 days in 1964 and then again welcomed him into his home 8 years later.

That is more a portrait of the true nature of Appalachian people than any ridiculous story Hollywood can make up (e.g. Deliverance).

[A little confusion here. It was this young man's parents who played host to William Gedney. Who had no connection with Duke University when these pictures were made. - Dave]

Worked hard

And is dirty. This is what happens. I'd love to know how the next few decades played out. And I love the sparkly bits in the chair.


I, for one, think that he's a very handsome young man, dirt and all. I bet he lights up and shines when he smiles.

Reminds me of my son

He who isn't happy until he's worked hard enough to get this dirty. His dad and I must've done something right. A healthy work ethic will take one a long way in life.

Dirty work, clean money

I worked alongside some guys like this for a short while in the '60s. The title was a comment I heard from one of them. The Cornetts of flyover land built the 20th century and won its wars. I don't think the 20 year-olds of today could do as much.

Eye of the Beholder

This series of photos has turned out to be quite the Rorschach test.


Would like to see more of the Cornett family series.

Still creepy

I have found the reactions to this series very interesting. I have lived in such a rural poor area all my life, going to school with MANY children who were forced to live as these people. Let's not make more out of these people than they were, they were just like the rest of us: both good and bad, smart and dumb, clean and dirty, hard workers and lazy, compassionate and indifferent, etc.

How having said that and being a product of a poor rural area, and still a resident in that area, I find the series creepy especially of young children smoking which I never saw happening with the like people I grew up with, at least not in front of their parents. I think it very possible the photos could have been a bit influnced.

[Just a bit "influnced"? Or a whole lot "influnced"? - Dave]

Negative comments?

I also don't understand where these negative comments are coming from. Too bad that some Shorpy viewers think they are better than others. I see a very hard working family when I view these photos of the Cornett family. They appear to be honest hard working people the kind that make good neighbors and good friends. What viewers are looking at here is the true backbone of America. The fancy dressing politicians could not pass the muster in similar situations.

Thanks Dave for showing not just the historical America but also the hard working America.

We need more

I have a feeling that this young man is a bright-eyed smart fellow that happens to live in the country and knows how to give a honest day's work for a honest paycheck. Our country needs a few million like him right now.

Try as I might

I detect nothing sinister here. Just a young man with a hard life by today's standards. Maybe even by any standards. But lack of wealth does not always equal unhappiness. I hope he was happy. It bothers me that someone could look at this simple, unassuming photo and then ascribe to it terms like murder and abuse. Reminds me of the quote by Anais Nin: We see things not as they are, but as we are.

Good Earthy Folks

Back in the mid-1960s.I hung out with a family a lot like the Cornetts, to the horror of my mother, although my father was more understanding. I was enriched by this association and still keep in touch with the surviving members of my alternate family.

I like rednecks & I like Gedney

Appearances can be deceiving; I'll bet if you gave this young man a good scrubbing, a haircut and put him in a nice suit, suddenly everyone will be trying to introduce him to their daughters, assuming he was going to Yale or Harvard (maybe he did, on a scholarship or GI Bill). When I lived in Charlottesville, with its "Gown and Town" culture, I met plenty of "rednecks" who were the nicest people; helpful, friendly, loved to sit on the porch Friday nights and shoot the breeze. Some of the "Gown" group were dressed to the nines, wouldn't dream of getting their hands dirty, stuck up, and borrringgggg!

P.S. I belonged the "gown" crowd at the U of Virginia in Charlottesville, a boy straight out of the Maryland suburbs.

Salt of the Earth

This young man and many many more like him were and are the backbone of the United States. When we were young (I'm about his age, if he's alive) most of us had to work damned hard and get very dirty. Some found their separate ways to a higher place in the middle class, usually by education; some did not. Regardless, these striving, determined, hard-nosed people are the kind who move a country forward. Boys like this are the future of any country.

Honest dirt

Some people's only exposure to honest dirt was the one time they got talked into helping their great-aunt Annie plant her new rosebush! Horrors! What is that stuff all over my hands? Must go wash it with some antibacterial soap, immediately! Poor babies.

Enough already!

This endless series of rednecks is uninspiring. They are being showcased as if they were iconic photos of Oakies of the Great Depression. Unlike the dust bowl pictures there is no dignity here or triumph of the human spirit. Let's get back to 19th century rarely seen photos of America's past.

"Murder and abuse"?

I look at this photo and see a really handsome guy. I don't understand where the negative comments are coming from.

Same teen... different mood

The earlier photo of him smoking definitely had a sinister aspect to it, the eyes (to me) reflected something intense, whether it was resentment, jealously, hatred, disgust, I don't know what. It might have been just an affectation for the photo. But it made you wish you could find out. I felt I had the same reaction that Capote did when he saw the photo that inspired "In Cold Blood." Now, in this photo, he seems to be in a much better, happier state of mind.

[Editor's note: Not the same guy. - Dave]

Being born and raised, and having lived most of my adult life in the Deep South, I've had plenty of interaction with families like the Cornetts. If there's one thing I've learned, you cannot judge by appearances. If you did, and lived in certain areas, you'd never leave your house. Appearance, for the most part, results from circumstances, not from character. I'd be more leery of those in fancy suits. They have the power (and often the inclination) to do you much harm.

I'd say the Cornetts must be good people, given their apparently warm reception of the high-falootin' photographer from Duke U.

Not creepy at all

He looks like someone who has just finished doing hard and dirty work.
Sad that that makes people uncomfortable nowadays.

Mixed feelings, but you can't deny a brilliant shot

An amazing study. You look at it once, there's a bright, affectionate, fearless young man - suddenly there's a hostile, defensive, possibly cruel boy. This is an example of where portrait photography surpasses painting. He tries to stare you out across forty-six years.

Keep posting pictures of the Cornetts!

In my neighborhood when I was growing up in NC, they were the Daltons. They had lots of kids, little money, crappy cars and the worst house. Mr. Dalton drove a heating oil truck and they were all as redneck as one could possibly be. They stuck together and would collectively "whoop a#%" on anyone who messed with any one of them, whether it was the oldest or the youngest. We all thought we were better than them because we had more and came from smaller families with disposable incomes. As it probably is with the Cornetts, they were the lucky ones with a strong sense of family and independence, as well as a "we can look out for ourselves" mentality. My family became dysfuntional as we grew up and moved to the four corners of the country; rarely speaking with or seeing each other anymore. I'll bet the Cornetts still gather for holidays.

It would be great to find out what became of the Cornetts.

60's redneck??

Its almost as if the photos in this series are a kind of truth serum for the posters here -- would you call the members of this family rednecks to their faces? I come from a family of hillbillies and rednecks, and I'm not ashamed of it. My Grandfather was a coal miner in Logan, West Virginia. These photos could be of my cousins -- they bring back wonderful memories for me. These people are no more capable of murder and abuse than anyone else. They've just lived a hardscrabble existence, making do with what they had, and narrowing their suspicious eyes at the remarks of "flatlanders" who don't know any better.

This guy knows how to do stuff.

The fact that some people here somehow find his appearance frightening says a lot more about them than the hard working subject of the photo. I wonder how long those folks would last in this man's environment. Thank you for posting this series. We all need a reality check now and then.

Then and Now

I hope the Cornett family survived to better times. It's hard to look at the photos and imagine the family still living, given their hardscrabble existence. Did they ever smile for their portrait? Did they ever stand together and belly-laugh? Was there any joy in Mudville, ever? It's like looking into a parallel universe and it's haunting, and creepy. There are those who did not experience it, and cannnot imagine this life in America. We want to move on to life as presented by the privileged few, like Tterrace. TTerrace had the kind of life we all wanted so let's look at that !

I saw a documentary of the Appalachian families in the year 2010. Not so different from life as the Cornett family knew in the early 60s. Are we in a rush to flip back to a perfect world--patterns and possessions, and happy children being encouraged to thrive. No pain in there, just a glimpse of life we want to believe everyone had.

The art of the well-done photograph is far more interesting and factual than film media could ever be. It produces huge emotion that cannot be dismissed by going for a brewski while the commercial is on. You will come back to your place and there is the same image.

The Draft

Assuming that he was eligible to be drafted into the armed service, this guy probably served, may have even enlisted. Many of the "Lifers" I met during my time in the Army were from places like these and probably families such as the Cornetts. If they weren't hard drinkers, they made good soldiers and many became NCOs, some learned trades. They were able to visit and live in other countries. They met and worked with people of other cultures. The down side was they could have been in a war. Military conscription in our country ended in 1973.

Hey, Wyeth

Hey, Wyeth, your profile says it all. These people knew HARD, physical work. They have my admiration and my deep respect. Many here had parents, fathers especially, who worked with their hands and their backs to support their families. Honorable men, all. The family portrayed in these pictures didn't have the advantages you enjoy, your stereotypes obviously intact. I love these pictures, as they show a time when MEN worked hard, played hard and took care of their families. When times get truly tough, people like this survive, You will not. Bah!

Bill Gedney

I studied with Bill back in the mid '70s at Pratt. I was fortunate to have known him and to have heard a few stories about these people and his commitment to living with them and documenting their lives. I'm also fortunate to know the people who organized his life's work at Duke Center for Documentary Studies. Thanks for posting these images!


What's with the mean comments? This kid looks sweet to me and not afraid to work or get dirty. I would have been about his age in 1964 and it was very common for boys to work on their cars (IF they had one), hunt, fish, etc. If they lived in a farming community, they did some pretty darn tough, dirty work, too. My grandson rarely leaves the house---too busy with the video/computer games. If he does get out in the heat, it's only to get in the pool. I'll bet there were some real winners in this family who made something of themselves and changed their future. Hope we hear from them.


I find this set of pictures a little disquieting. There's something--an intimacy?--about them that's disconcerting. That would make them great pictures.


I am really enjoying this series of pictures. The Cornetts show a hard core brand of grit and determination that I find admirable. I'd hang out with these people anytime.

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