“George was serious—yet he had that bit of mischief and naughtiness to him. He liked to nudge boundaries. His thinking was complex—and nonstop”
George Pitts, the singular first photo director of VIBE magazine, died March 4, 2017, after a long illness. His death marks a profound sea change in photography, and in the worlds of the many people who were touched by him.
VIBE’s images under George’s tenure (from the magazine’s launch, in 1993, until 2004), drew on diverse photographic styles, from fashion to portrait to documentary, that coalesced into a brand—and yet were anything but predictable. The photos had frisson.
The covers George produced for the magazine were bold, deft, sometimes intimate, other times defiant semaphores of a nascent hip hop that would inevitably become synonymous with the culture itself. They gift-wrapped an audacious black street lifestyle and music, and the vision of great editors, writers, photographers, and designers, and made them irresistible consumables for Middle America and the world. (The Society of Publication Designers was not alone in referring to VIBE as “the hip-hop bible.”)
It was a time when film was slowly transitioning to digital, and when hip hop was in its acting-out adolescence: a time of youth and unsurpassable talent but also of gangstas and thugs; of police harassment and artist arrests; of graffiti and train-tagging and a still-smoldering South Bronx; of “Free Mumia!” and then “Free O.J.”; of Tipper Gore’s push for parental advisory ratings on music lyrics and the Parent Music Resource Center’s particular ire over hip-hop.
VIBE was revolutionary—it brought this all mainstream, along with a black subculture that was often misunderstood and more often reviled and feared, in a magazine founded by Quincy Jones and black entrepreneurs, with content largely by and about black and brown people.
George didn’t hesitate to mix stills from Larry Fink’s Hair Wars with slick celebrity shots by Albert Watson or Barron Claiborne, or Dana Lixenberg’s ernest Capetown with Terry Richardson’s roué fashion photos and Vinoodh Matadin and Inez Van Lamsweerde’s off-kilter portraits and Melodie McDaniel’s lush “fake documentary” work (her words) —and to punctuate them all with pictures by young unknowns. (Photographer Gillian Laub got her first break with VIBE straight out of school.) George was a trained painter, and these diverse visions were simply different strokes on the broad canvas of black life.
The indelible, and now ubiquitous, covers of a contemplative gold-chain-draped Tupac in his baseball cap or bareheaded in a straitjacket (a cover that broke VIBE’s previous sales records); of a big-bellied Rick Ross inked in dead presidents; Prince in puckered purple; a sloe-eyed Erykah Badu; a bestacled, befeathered George Clinton; of Biggie and Faith in their big wheels; of a buff, defiant Puffy…were the result of George’s astute eye and his faith in his photographers and—in himself to bring out the best in them.
George was also his own indelible image: His signature upstroke of tightly curled hair (its sides later swiped with salt-and-pepper), his bowtie (often paired with immaculate Dickies overalls), his suit jackets—George was pure polish punctuated by moments of unadulterated irreverence.
George was also a black man and one of the very few (if any) to be in his position in the photo world. These facts have somehow fallen away in much of what has been written on him.
Yet his blackness was not incidental. It was pivotal. (His father was, in fact, George Pitts, Sr., the entertainment writer for the trailblazing black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier.) His blackness enabled George to envision and produce VIBE’s full-spectrum images of black music and culture; and the perspective, consciousness, impulse, and sensitivity to select covers that challenged norms, not only in American magazine culture but in hip hop itself.
“George was pure polish punctuated by moments of unadulterated irreverence”
George’s photo direction for VIBE didn’t diffuse that blackness—it set it on fire. He dared to publish bling on bare black skin, to take dark skin tones and shadows as deep as they could go—Busta Rhymes goes black, black, black and barely distinguishable from the background in Piotr Sikora’s portrait for the magazine—and to dig in to the textures, jubilant unruliness, and art of black hair and ’dos that were in themselves extraordinary: Busta’s hair rises like an elaborate trophy cup atop his head; Morrison’s lush ash mane appears in a closeup as an intricate tapestry; and, in a photo by Guy Aroch, the Notorious B.I.G. is seated like a doppelganger Alfred Hitchcock, with a raven perched on the cigar that protrudes from his mouth. There is a mud-encrusted Wesley Snipes by Dan Winters, Alastair Thain’s full-on extreme closeup of Chaka Khan licking her lips, and Alex Tehrani’s uninhibited documentary shots of Atlanta’s bacchanalian Freaknik, along with Robert Maxwell’s Lenny Kravitz, whose face is obscured by the crotch of the woman who sits atop him, and that classic black-and-white cover of a do-ragged Tupac by Lixenberg. Whether you’re a fan of hip hop or not, it’s hard to flip through the magazine or Vibe XL and not be blown away by the power and breadth of the imagery (or writing), or its “graphic intensity,” as George liked to call it, and just how visceral, in your face—just how black—it all is. In an oversize, glossy Time publication. In the 1990s and early naughts. It was blasphemy and pure balls. And America ate it up.
This was the balance that George succeeded in achieving: to sell magazines to the Midwest; to keep it real while pleasing the corporate suits at Time, which amazingly came behind this black urban culture magazine; to be provocative and true to hip hop, celebrated for its confrontational stance, and yet make it accessible to us all; while showing us black life beyond the ’hood; while conceiving and producing the multitude of images that made up the magazine—every month; while finding and nurturing photographic talent. The VIBE staff was small, and the photo staff was even smaller. George accomplished this with an assistant and maybe an intern, and that was all.
George was dedicated to photography, and VIBE became his vehicle to cultivate new photographic talent. He made time to sit with their work and to talk to—and to listen to—nearly all of them. (Several folks have said George embodied the Zen of listening, and this couldn’t be more true: George was genuinely interested in what you had to say. If you have never experienced being truly listened to before—and likely you haven’t, not like that—it was quite an experience.) He believed in and respected young photographers—many of them women—and he gave them trust, confidence, and room to run.
I was one of them. (I also wrote for and was an ongoing freelance copy editor for the magazine, where I worked for five years and knew George.) George gave me two pages, which he packed, for my photo essay on a clandestine graffiti artist in Beijing, where graffiti was a crime that could result in corporal punishment—publishing 10-plus-images of my work, my first for VIBE. (The graffiti artist, Dali, is now well-known, and his work is in the Museum of Modern Art.) I will never forget George’s leading me into his office and sitting before me, tallying my rate, looking all pleased (in his bowtie, of course). He added the numbers symbolically and with a wee bit of flourish, paused, smiled, and announced the total like a proud parent. For me, it remains an unforgettable professional moment, and above all, one that was quintessentially George.
George was, as the photographer Dawoud Bey referred to him, “a powerhouse.” VIBE became a multimillion-dollar black music-and-culture Mothership, rocket-fueled by George’s images. (Bey never had the opportunity to meet George in person, but he had sent many young photographers his way.) “Pitts was a visionary,” Bey said, “and as director of photography at VIBE, he defined a visual aesthetic of black popular culture on the printed page that extended beyond those pages in their influence, out into the world and then back onto the page.”
Yet when George stepped outside the VIBE offices, he was just another black man. Kevin Powell, the author-activist who was then a VIBE senior writer, recalled how one night he and George left work and hailed a cab, only to be told by the driver when they sat down inside the too-common refrain for black passengers that “the bridge was out” so he couldn’t (wouldn’t) take them to Brooklyn…. It happened to be raining hard. Powell persisted; George remained silently by his side while the younger and more outspoken Powell let the driver know how he felt about the injustice of it all—until the driver accused them both of trying to rob him. Powell described George’s patience and “quiet dignity”—George had likely been fighting these everyday battles too long. Yet his defiance was there, and like his irreverence, he would just sort of slide it in, with an observant dry humor and a timing so perfect you didn’t notice until it hit you.
George was serious—yet he had that bit of mischief and naughtiness to him. He liked to nudge boundaries. His thinking was complex—and nonstop. If I had to pin him down, I’d say George was an eighties man—a decade when intellect, articulate, and worldly hadn’t yet become a bad words; a time before big branding and like, “like” and emojis—when people actually used words to express themselves; when creative synergy rippled through art; a time before gangsta and grunge; a time of frisson—that word that George loved.
He was a fan of “cinema,” as he called it, and of filmmakers like Godard and Fassbinder; of musicians David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Bryan Ferry; of “the great visionary choreographer” Pina Bausch (whose passing he noted in remarks on VIBE’s closing, after 16 years, in 2009); and of photographers like his friend Iké Udé and work like Udé’s self-published aRude magazine, whose opulent, edgy images and self-portraits continue to transcend boundaries cultural, sexual, artistic, and photographic.
George got where he was through straight-up diligence and quiet determination and his brilliant brain, eye, and style. He didn’t hold the latter gifts above anybody—George was as down to Earth as he was elegant.
He was also warm, thoughtful, deliberate, forever curious, and, sometimes unintentionally intimidating. What more could your words offer this man who had so carefully pondered it all? Who turned each thought and word as though a prism—a lens—in his mind until he got the focus, the angle, the shadows and highlights, just right. Who used words like “loquacious” in everyday dialogue but yet who was never put on.
George went on to the more corporate Life—where he was also photo director, wore his Dickies, and brought several black faces to the cover. In 2007 he left to teach at Parsons, where he became a chair and an assistant professor and often wore ties and suit jackets simply to teach. I am not surprised that he took so seriously nurturing this young, still-forming talent (including the photographer Ryan McGinley, upon whom George’s “On Nudity, Sexuality, and Beauty in Photography had “profound” effect). George shot a series of nude portraits of “older” women.
An accomplished poet, George also penned and published his opus Partial Objects. “I loved George’s discerning, fine faculty for well-executed photographs, ” says Ude. “But he was just as fluent with beautiful language.”
A Toni Morrison quote hung on George’s office wall at VIBE: “I would like my work to do two things, ” Morrison says. “Be as demanding and sophisticated as I want it to be. And at the same time be accessible in a sort of emotional way to lots of people, just like jazz. That’s a hard task, but that’s what I want to do.” In many ways, this could be said to be George’s creed.
Photographer Leslie Lyons, who shot for George at VIBE and then Life said, summed it up perfectly in her Facebook tribute: “If you were ever in the company of George Pitts and did not learn something, then you were not paying attention.”
The world, and photography in particular, has lost some irreplaceable frisson along with him.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Marlaine Glicksman. Image @ Allison Michael-Orenstein.)