Smoking boy: The story behind one of Eastern Kentucky’s most iconic images

Billy Cornett smoking, Big Rock, Kentucky, July 15-26, 1964.
Billy Cornett smoking, Big Rock, Kentucky, July 15-26, 1964. Courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University

Of the thousands of photos taken by William Gedney during the 1960s, one of the most polarizing and iconic portraits was of a shirtless little boy smoking a hand-rolled cigarette in Eastern Kentucky.

That boy, who was about 4 at the time, was Billy Cornett, one of a dozen siblings photographed by Gedney as part of an anthropological immersion into Appalachia.

The breadth of Gedney’s Cornett family photos vivify life’s mundane moments — like changing a tire or fixing a bicycle. Gedney’s recently resurfaced photo of Billy smoking triggered impassioned discussion on Reddit, an 11-year-old link sharing website that’s one of the most visited in the United States.

Reddit users on its r/historyporn forum saw Billy’s photo as an opportunity to decry the cycle of poverty. Other Reddit users jumped to conclusions over the life they thought Billy lived, claiming “That’s like every feral child ever for some reason.” In reality, Gedney’s photo both supported and contradicted widely held stereotypes about rural America. The Cornetts found love and nobility even in poverty, said Wayne, 66, one of the older Cornett sons, who helped roll his brother’s cigarette.

“We were just a happy family,” Cornett said.

Gedney’s sojourn in Kentucky was partly inspired by President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “War on Poverty,” launched the very same year that Billy’s photo was taken.

“War on Poverty” was the unofficial name given to a group of social programs, including food stamps, aimed at helping the destitute. These programs prompted “a flood of photographers, news crews, and filmmakers (think Charles Kuralt’s Christmas in Appalachia circa 1964)” to Kentucky to document rural poverty, photographer and Kentucky native Roger May wrote on his blog. Gedney found the perfect subject matter in patriarch Willie Cornett and his family.

The Cornetts were representative of the common man, May said.

“They were the sort of family that folks could find all over Eastern Kentucky and southern Tennessee,” May said. “There was no specific condition that they displayed that made them more interesting than another. It was this perfect timing to see the human spirit. They were just being who they were.”

This idea of capturing an ordinary Southern family was echoed in Gedney’s notebooks, now housed, along with his entire photo archive, at Duke University, according to the New York Times.

“I do not consider myself a ‘social-problem’ photographer,” Gedney wrote. “I am concerned first with making a good photograph — an uncropped blending of form, value and content.”

In 1964, Willie Cornett had just been laid off from his job at Blue Diamond Mining Camp in Leatherwood. Despite that financial setback and a dozen children to feed, Willie welcomed Gedney warmly. Gedney offered to sleep on the floor in the three-bedroom home, but Cornett wouldn’t allow it. Gedney ended up sharing Wayne Cornett’s bed, Wayne said.

Gedney stayed with the Cornetts for 11 days, constantly snapping photos. The black-and-white image of Billy smoking was captured after Wayne Cornett his mother, Vivian, and other siblings had gone to a nearby field with buckets to pick blackberries. Billy ate some of the blackberries that were to be canned for winter, so he looked dirty in the photo, Wayne Cornett said.

Billy’s photo would become one of the most requested from Gedney’s photo archive, Cornett said. Gedney’s Eastern Kentucky photos have since been featured in galleries at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Pratt Institute. His photos were also curated by Margaret Sartor for “What Was True,” a book published in 2000. Sartor is a photographer and teacher at Duke.

“Pictures use reality as the building blocks. It can have a meaning that goes beyond Billy’s true life,” Sartor said. “Pictures have this weird ability to foreshadow things. That mischievous, challenging quality, where he’s doing the things he’s not supposed to do, is a quality of boyhood that may or may not lead to trouble.”

(Right) Young couple, Kentucky, 1972. The pair are Wayne Cornett and his wife, Madelon. Photo by William Gedney, Courtesy Duke University(Left) Madelon (Midge) Cornett and her husband, Wayne, sat together in their home in London. Photo by Pablo Alcala

When Billy was grown, he distanced himself from his family with moves to Oklahoma and ultimately Texas with his wife, Barbara. One of the jobs the pair had was with a carnival; Billy worked on rides and Barbara at the concession stand.

“He could not sit still,” Barbara Cornett said. “He was a jack-of-all-trades.”

The one indissoluble part of Billy’s life was his addiction to cigarettes and drugs, Wayne Cornett said.

In the early 2000s, Billy’s health deteriorated. He died in 2005 after suffering three brain aneurysms. He was 44.

His widow has a copy of Gedney’s photo of Billy.

“I couldn’t believe people lived that way,” Barbara Cornett said. “I couldn’t believe he grew up with no electricity or running water.”

Gedney returned to Kentucky once more in 1972, between and after trips to Calcutta, India; San Francisco; and Paris. He stayed with the Cornetts and continued photographing their lives. One of Gedney’s photos captured a young Wayne sitting next to his wife, Madelon. The two have been married 47 years.

Gedney was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1989 at age 56. Only one of his Kentucky photos was published during his life. Gedney’s photo archive, journals and notes were left in the care of his brother Richard, who donated the collection to Duke in 1993. Sartor was instrumental in organizing the photos and helped arrange for the Cornett family to visit the collection.

“I think that Bill Gedney’s work is not just valuable to me and to Duke. He had a kind of genius that was about being able to deal with this tension between reaching out to somebody and being close to somebody and then ultimately this person being alone,” Sartor said. “The photographs are as much about you as they are about what’s in front of the lens.”

Fernando Alfonso III: 859-231-1324, @fernalfonso