George Forss was one in a million. When I heard of his recent passing at the age of 80, I crumbled in disbelief. George was one of those artists you just assume will live forever.
He was a self-taught photographer selling his black-and-white photos on the streets of New York City in the seventies before he was discovered in 1980, at the age of 39, by renowned photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. Duncan produced a book of George’s photography titled New York New York: Masterworks of a Street Peddler, published by McGraw-Hill in 1984. It changed his life. Soon he was represented by Park Slope Gallery in Brooklyn and his work was featured in major publications, a one-man exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and in a BBC documentary on his rise to international fame. (For more on his work and life, visit Park Slope’s blog posts.)
George moved to Cambridge, New York in 1989. I met him in 2007 during the planning of the first Open Studios of Washington County biennial in upstate New York. He was one of the biennial’s original exhibiting artists and generously offered to photograph some of the other exhibiting artists for the publicity campaign. And George being George, the results were anything but ordinary! Behind the camera, he sought out fascinating forms, lighting and juxtapositions rather than traditional “portraits,” so the photo sessions became an exploration into creativity and the search for something “spiritual.”
For my session with George, we embarked on an adventure of finding unique ways to photograph me with my work in the context of our rural surroundings. In one shot, he arranged my sculptures along an old dirt driveway with me leaning against a rustic fence so “the art led to me.” It was pure George.
Of course, I did get him to do a more “traditional” shot as well……
We shared a gallery space for the Open Studios and spent the entire weekend sharing stories. In-between visitors, he told me about his life on the streets of New York City. “I got interested in photography because of my mother,” George said. “She was obsessed with celebrities and used to wait outside New York theaters to take pictures of them with her box camera.” Norma Forss also took children’s portraits as the one seen here in George’s blog, taken circa 1937.
His mother was more of a creative eccentric than a nurturer and George and his sister were often left to fend for themselves, eventually ending up in orphanages. As George honed his photography skills, he later began earning a living selling his photos on the streets of New York.
“You have to keep moving,” he told me. “I’d set up on Wall Street and knew that if I could get one person to buy, that would create a ‘run’ of sales. But a ‘run’ never lasts indefinitely. Once the sales slow down, you move to the next spot and wait for another ‘run.’”
Our conversations also meandered into discussions on the presence of aliens. George’s interest in extraterrestrials was sparked in the sixties by a friend whom he said had “contact” with them. His deep explorations led to a 2007 book on the subject, titled “Enos.” I read most of it. Some of the text really shifts your brain cells.
I continued to see George from time to time, either stopping by to visit him at his Ginofor Gallery on Main Street in Cambridge, or running into him at an art event or local concert. I always treasured our conversations. You never knew quite where they would lead, but it was always a fascinating journey. Despite his life being less-than-easy, especially as a child, he always remained creative, curious and hopeful for the future which also showed in his photography.
When an artist passes, a creative voice is no longer and an extra layer of sadness is added to humanity’s loss. Rest in peace, George. You will be missed.