photo by Mike McGregor
For George Pitts, RIP
I wanted to be George Pitts’ most special student forever.
My eagerness to serve as his acolyte must have annoyed hell out of the man, but I was willing to risk it; as anyone who met him understood, one was never going to meet a person like George Pitts again. You wanted to grab up as much of him as he was willing to offer. Astoundingly, despite his eminent reputation as a photo editor, photographer, teacher, poet, and painter, he was (as Hyun Kim has noted) a great listener; he truly wanted to know what you had to say, whoever you were.
Before I began working at Vibe in 1998 (fulfilling one of the only professional goals I’ve ever come up with), someone told me, “You know, he’s friends with Bowie. Like, they hang out.”
Then I met George — dignified, inscrutable, splendidly turned out, a totally unfamiliar type — and the claim appeared entirely plausible. (The Bowie story made George giggle. George had an enchanting giggle.) He could be intimidating at first, but the impression quickly dissipated — in Vibe’s corridors George could seem slightly otherworldly, but very much of the place, as captivating and daunting to watch as a beating heart.
George was also the coolest person I’ve ever met, by a country mile. He represented for me the best I could hope for, if I lived my life in New York properly. I knew that bar was far too high for me, but it was thrilling to know someone who might teach me a few steps along the way.
Elegant but earthy, a gentleman and a rake, an upstart dandy and a Buddha monk, George could carry off a flightsuit topped with a cravat, jumpboots with a sharkskin suit, big bronze jewelry and good sideburns. He repped for Hans Bellmer and Renee Cox, Bowie and Biggie, Didion and Genet, McGinley and LaChapelle — but the duality that struck me most about George was that he was both a stone aesthete and totally unconcerned with purity.
The man had the courage to make himself available to new work. With him, I never got away with dismissing an artist out of hand. His generosity toward art schooled me all the time (still does). Though his observations were sometimes astringent, I always welcomed more.
Late nights in the hallways at Vibe, he stood up for Dylan and the Doors; in Life’s offices he declared for Ice Cube’s most scorched-earth recordings. These were brave stances to take in those environments. George delighted in polymorphous perversities, and I knew no one who embodied and fastened juxtapositions as brilliantly.
At the same time, George listened patiently to all my rants. How we should never put Jay Z on the cover of Life (or inside it), how Ol’ Dirty Bastard deserved better than to be portrayed as a debased buffoon in Vibe, and how all these bling rappers ought to make more socially conscious music.
And then he would gently spin my head completely around with a penetrating insight that revealed what I hadn’t considered — and the fact that, too often, defensive structures filter out the light. In other words, quit being such a hater.
At one point I thought this was a lesson in staying hip — never reject what the kids are into, you’ll just look old and out of touch. But later I realized I wasn’t giving him enough credit.
George simply wasn’t willing to limit himself. He wanted to see and know more, not less, of this world and what the people in it create. He abided in a willingness to offer himself to anything new. I was always embarrassed that, at half his age, I remained so stingy.
An artist and intellectual, George was never willing to dismiss expression on the grounds it was inauthentic, unserious, not Black enough, too white, too unkind, too gynocentric, too dirty, too clean, too macho, too naked, too coy. George respected very few cultural pieties. He would, as we would have said at Vibe, fuck with just about anything.
For a man devoted to the erotic (it always felt a little sexy when George was in the room), he didn’t carry any driving will to possess or control women. On the contrary, he loved fierce women — not “strong women,” but uncompromising, bracing, visionary, sui generis women — Grace Jones, Peaches, Louise Bourgeoise, PJ Harvey, Lil’ Kim, Stevie Nicks, Bjork, Diamanda Galas, Madonna, Kate Bush, Vanessa del Rio, Josephine Baker. He loved women who were not to be fucked with.
Even in his love for dominant male archetypes — louche playboys, thin white dukes and Satanic majesties, lovermen and swaggering playas — George recognized the respect even a strutting cock-of-the-walk afforded a powerful woman.
At Vibe, I went down a guttering wreck, under a cloud. If we ever met again, I didn’t know how enthusiastic George would be to see me.
Then, in 2004, the legendary Life magazine gamely returned in its third and final printed form, and George signed on as photo director. A position opened in their research department, and I landed it.
Suddenly, miraculously, I found myself working with him again. I wondered how he would take to the more orthodox culture at Time Inc, but George, his bonafides long established, seemed more comfortable at Life than confined — Dali at Disneyland. I was just happy to get a second chance to see him every day. So I made sure I did that, for the next two and a half years.
The last contact I had with George was in 2008, a few years after Life folded, when I asked him to endorse me. I was applying to graduate school, and I needed a recommendation.
I knew it was just an excuse to re-connect; fearing imposition, I had rarely made overtures in the intervening years. Still, as the first music scholar I’d ever known, it seemed right to ask for his co-sign as I started a course in musicology. I knew many, many people demanded George’s time, and that I’d better make this request really good.
So I emailed George to ask him, and he declined.
He wasn’t unkind, just truthful: Over the years we’d worked together, at two different magazines, he had never been my supervisor, and he had never been my professor. As he explained, we had worked side by side, but never directly on a project together.
And he said that he had known me as a friend, not as a student. As always, he was warmly polite, sensitive to my feelings, and absolutely right. I understood, it made sense immediately. And it was gratifying just to know that he had thought of me in that way.
I mostly thought of George as teacher, inspiration, and guide, so it was startling to hear him call me a friend. I regretted pushing him to that declaration, a bit. Selfishly, I savored the status anyway.