One of the more remarkable photography collections I’ve stumbled on in recent years is one shot by William Gedney of the extended Cornett family in rural Kentucky. He shot them twice; first in 1964 and then again in 1972. There’s 921 images in total, and a healthy percentage include the cars in their lives, and the struggle to keep them going. These photos are quite a poignant look back in time, when families were large (12 kids in the Cornett family), poverty was rampant, and the drug and obesity crises hadn’t yet set in, among other things. And the men spent a lot of time with their cars.
Here’s the Cornett family, headed by Willie and Vivian, and their 12 children in 1964. Most of the images I’ve selected are from 1972, when the kids are all older, but some are also from 1964.
The ’55 Ford makes a number of appearances in the 1964 shots; presumably it was the main family car at the time.
These scenes are a reminder of how simply many Americans still lived in the 60s and 70s, without indoor plumbing and such. It might as well be a third world country, and a very poor one at that.
The Ford appears to be in need of constant ministrations.
Here it’s on “the rack”.
Let’s skip to 1972, as there’s a lot more images and a lot more boys that need wheels, or at least want to have them. The family allegiance seems to have switched over to Chevys.
I actually used this and a couple of other shots in a brief look at Gedney’s work back in 2011, but I’ve wanted to go back and share more of his photography.
This kid was probably pretty well versed with basic car mechanics at the time.
Time to get back out. He has a lot more faith in the bumper jack than I would anymore, but I did plenty of the same back in the day. Literally about the same time. In fact what’s interesting about these shots from 1972 is that they don’t yet reflect the impact of cultural changes that were so rampant at the time, like long hair, which was even starting to be adopted by the, um, other side of the cultural divide. Maybe in another year or two. But it makes these 1972 shots look like they could well be from the early-mid 60s, except for how battered the cars mostly are.
There were still Fords around to attend to in 1972, like this ’57.
Or this 1960.
Or just to lean on.
But the ’63, ’64 and ’65 Chevy are a common fixture in 1972.
Here’s a 409 being either installed or removed from the ’65 Chevy.
Two girls are playing with their barbie dolls in the shade of the ’65 Biscayne.
While an older girl daydreams on the trunk. About what life post-Barbie will be like?
While one of the little guys stands proudly in the trunk.
Willie Cornett teaching his boys about the finer (or lesser) points of GM starters.
A loving embrace against a Chevy.
Exhaust work employing a blow torch.
A Mercury among Chevys.
An engine and transmission being moved either into or out of the Mercury wagon. The hard way.
An old Chevy truck getting some needed attention.
A similar GMC getting what appears to be a brake job. The drill is probably being used to hone the wheel cylinder. I remember that all too well; why did wheel cylinders leak so readily back then, and never in modern times?
The same truck, presumably, broken down in a foggy field.
And here it is again with a skinny girl. Well, just about everyone is skinny.
It’s not that they presumably didn’t feed the kids; it’s just that the food and portions where very different then. Cornbread and beans; probably a common meal, washed down with water, not soda. There are also pictures of the kids picking beans in the garden, and girls sewing on treadle sewing machines.
This time it’s an old IH truck that needs attention.
Flat tires are a recurring theme. This is a poignant image. That tire looks…not like it should. Hopefully it was just the spare.
An inner tube getting patched.
A Honda 65 makes an appearance. It will probably be a while yet before the first Japanese cars do.
And even it too needs attention.
If the cars won’t run, one can always walk.
A revolver lays in the foreground.
This tot doesn’t want to be left out of the action. Given the ’55 Ford, this shot is probably from 1972.
This is no Chevy.
Nary a Chrysler product anywhere, except for this old one.
And there’s this Valiant. Can I ever relate to this.
Two girls, again with the ’65 Biscayne. Bonus points if you can identify the car they’re leaning on.
These relatives are Ford lovers.
The (very) young family and their first car.
Petting the family Chevys.
Got to start them young.
Time to say goodbye to the Cornetts. In this final shot, the photographer, William Gedney (front center), has embedded himself with his subjects.
Gedney’s work in documenting this family at play, work, fixing their cars or just passing a cigarette is a remarkable undertaking, and it’s well worth the time to peruse the full collection (here), as well as his other collections too, at Duke University’s Library digital collections.