At the memorial service for George Cavalletto, his teacher Janelle Lynch described George as a student and photographer.
I was one of George’s teachers at the International Center of Photography. I also co-produced George’s new monograph, What You Love, and I authored the essay for it. I’m honored to be a part of this gathering and to be able to share some words with you about George as a photographer.
Between 2013 and 2019, George took 46 courses at the International Center of Photography, among them The Psychology of Home, Finding Your Voice as a Photographer, Classic Portraiture, History of Contemporary Photography, and Fine Art Digital Printing. In the 1380 hours of course work and the innumerable hours spent photographing, George fulfilled his ambition to become a master of the photographic medium.
His dream had its roots in his California childhood. As a boy, George received a camera as a Christmas present just after WWII. He used it to memorialize family events, which is also what he did once he and his wife Shelia began a family in 1971. He described the thousands of images that he took of his growing family as “tag along pictures, quick, unplanned shots.” Later in life, when he began his photography studies, he said that “picture taking took on a new deliberateness, the establishment of a clear point of view became integral to photographing my family.”
George’s point of view emerged from love—love of family, the miracle of life, beauty, self—and from a conversation we had in my classroom on October 2, 2014. George remembered that date, I didn’t. It was our first critique together and George showed me recent images, mostly of strangers on the city’s streets and subways. There was one that was different—it was imbued with a sense of reverential connection. I said, “George, who are these people?” He replied, “They’re my children.” And I said, “George, photograph what you love.”
And so he did, with pride, and dogged determination that led to the creation of a remarkable body of work that has earned a place in the canon of artists who photographed their kin and themselves.
George also imparted other, intangible gifts. He inspired his peers at the International Center of Photography, where he was deeply respected and admired. One of them, Tom Klem, another beloved long-time student of mine who is here today wrote the following upon learning of George’s passing:
When I first took a course with Janelle I was unsure [about my] ability to move forward in photography….Was I too old to start again? Then, in the first class among the 20 and 30 year olds was George. He was older than me. He was working at full tilt producing large color prints. His work was powerful. I thank Janelle for her gentle firm hand in guiding my path in photography, but it was George that first gave me hope.
Another long-time student of mine, Andrew Rizzardi, who was also my teaching assistant in the last course George took with me, said this about George’s work:
George’s striking portraits were hanging [in a group exhibition] along the corridor at ICP when I began studying there. No image on those walls was more memorable than George’s self-portrait on his exercise bike. I was so struck and inspired by his vulnerability and humanity (not to mention his breathtaking technical use of light). His work is always so affecting and an inspiration for me, whether it be the palatable love for his family or his challenging self-portraits that seemed to be staring down mortality. More importantly, he was a pleasure to be around.
George was deeply informed by practice, technical and formal training, history and theory, literature and sociology. To me, as his teacher, his achievements as a photographer are abundantly clear—his photographs are the proof.
But what matters most to me today is that George himself knew. In the interview I did with him in 2020 in preparation for the essay I would write for his monograph, George told me, “Settling each summer with my family in Nova Scotia along the shores of the wild Atlantic, I have wondered if I had captured my version of youthful innocence in my photographs of children and of the people who love them. And at times I have thought that I’ve done just that.”