Apr 10, 2017

George Pitts, 1951-2017

This was a memory that I shared at the memorial service for noted photography editor/photographer/poet/artist/teacher George Pitts, on April 2 at the Parsons New School in New York City. I was one of 17 people, plus George’s wife Jan, who gave powerful remembrances of this inspiring man.

You can see the complete service—almost three hours of inspiring talks and images—on YouTube.

I was fortunate to work with George Pitts twice in my career. And both times it was truly a blessing.

The first time was 1991, when we were both much younger men starting out in our careers at Entertainment Weekly. We were both just cogs in the machine at that point, trying to find our way and our voice. Of course George had already found his voice—honestly, he must have come out of the womb perfectly formed and ready to work and make art—and I was immediately in awe of his mastery of photography and the photo editing and production process, and how, even at that point, he approached everything with his own brilliant personal aesthetic. Plus, he was really cool!

George got his own magazine a few years later when Vibe was launched and he became the founding photography editor. I stayed in touch with George, periodically calling to congratulate him on a particular photo or cover. The real reason I kept calling was because I really wanted to work with him again. I kept calling and stalking him for years, as I moved through design director positions at various magazines. Every time I ran into George at an industry event, I’d ask him when we were going to work together.

Finally, the stars aligned, and thanks in large part to George, I went to work at Vibe as design director and got that opportunity to collaborate with him and an amazing group of people. Needless to say, it was better than I expected (and my expectations were high) and I adored working with him.

Watching George at work was a true marvel. He was always calm and cool, very serene, amid the chaos that oftentimes ensued at Vibe. George was patient and kind, and filled with love. But he was also strong and outspoken. And very, very smart. The highest compliment you could get from George was, “That’s deep.” I learned so much from him.

He approached his work like art, which was one reason it was so beautiful and memorable. George always edited his photos at home, at night, away from the chaos of the office, with a glass of wine to help the process.

George loved to push the envelope with his images, and he loved to be provocative. He also had a very dirty mind. From time to time George would bring in pictures for Vibe, and I’d just shake my head and say, “George, this photo is so DIRTY!” That always got a big smile out of him.

The photographs that George directed at Vibe were simply the best I’ve ever seen. Words like brilliant, amazing, and awesome don’t do George’s work justice.

Vibe published a book of collected photographs from the archives for the magazine’s tenth anniversary. George wrote a brilliant introduction, which is a powerful statement on his life and artistic and work aesthetics. In it, George said, “I enjoy the opportunity to infect the world with funky, elegant, and compassionate visual images.”

Well, George infected the world with artfulness and love like no one else I’ve known. And like George himself, the images he helped create, first at Entertainment Weekly, then at Vibe, and later at Life and other places, will be remembered with love and respect, for generations to come.

Other people can speak better about George’s influence on the culture and the world at large, which was considerable. I can just say what George meant to me: He was a great man, who I loved and admired and respected, and a great teacher, who taught me so much. Like everyone in this room, and many more who aren’t here, I really feel blessed that I had the chance to work with George and know him and learn from him. My only regret is that my daughters never had the chance to meet him and learn from him in person. But I know that they will feel his influence and inspiration down through the ages.

Photograph by  Clayton Cubitt

Further reading:

George Pitts: Notes on Vibe Magazine