At the memorial service for George Cavalletto, his daughter Anna Caitlin talked about what it was like to have him as a parent.
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.”
At the memorial service for George Cavalletto, John Broughton talked about George as a graduate student, academic collaborator, and friend.
At the memorial service for George Cavalletto, Alan Howard talked about their decades of friendship and the qualities that made George a mensch.
At the memorial service for George Cavalletto, a message was read from his friend Sean Wilder describing their college days together and the long friendship that followed.
George’s and my friendship began in 1957 when we were students at Santa Barbara Hugh School and met weekends to play jazz together. Our paths parted soon when he went to college and I moved to the Bay Area. It was pure chance that we met again in September 1960 while registering for courses at Columbia adult School for General Studies and, a month or so later, rented an apartment near campus that we shared for four years.
During that time our happenstance relationship became one of intense intellectual exchanges, often from antagonistic positions but always loyally tolerant of one another’s ideas. Those years spent studying and discussing literature, philosophy, and politics, George in the English Deparment, I in Comparative Literature, were a time of intellectual blossoming for both of us, and it is impossible for me now to sort out what we learned from reading, often the same works, from our professors, and from our discussions, often arguments. Friction between us was a stimulant, and contributed to making George my principal intellectual “sparring partner.” Part of my everlasting debt to George is that he convinced me to take Professor Rudolph Binion’s two-semester course in European Intellectual History the year after he did. I think we were completely in agreement that Binion’s course was far and away the most exciting and horizon-expanding in all our undergraduate studies. It also turned two Californians into New Yorkers with eyes for European culture.
Though I was not conscious of it at the time, George displayed enormous tact in not making his wealth a dividing factor between us. Later, his generous hospitality made many visits my wife and I took to New York much easier and more pleasant than they would have been otherwise.
When I was graduated from Columbia G.S. a year after George and left New York for a first year abroad, his and my paths parted again, but after 1969 whenever I returned to New York I always contacted him and we met to compare our experiences.
Much happened during the years following 1964. Both of us discovered and adopted leftist radicalism. George co-founded the Liberation News Service and militated for the Palestinian cause at home and abroad, I, for the civil rights movement and against the war in Viet Nam. Above all, he met Sheila and, with her as his wife and partner, did what he repeatedly told me was the best thing he ever did in life: founded and raised a family. Her premature death made a huge crater in his existence. He was a changed man.
I know very little about his career in teaching as a sociologist, but I think I can say that it and being a pater familias made him a more humble and generous person than he was when we shared the Claremont Avenue apartment. His interest – ultimately his passion – for art photography surprised me at first. It now seems to me a logical development of his curiosity about people, their lives, the conditions they live in, and his own passionate naure. An extension, too, of his interest in and love for the family he founded and nurtured, which was also his remedial response to the one he had known as a child and adolescent: he was determined to be a better parent.
His death deprives us of so much, but I am – we all are – grateful for what his love and friendship helped us to become.
At the memorial service for George Cavalletto, his sister Pattie Cavalletto talked about their childhood and her lifetime with her brother.
George was my big brother. To me, he was “Butch”, his childhood nickname given by our mother because he was her tough little man. She loved him in full devotion during his first few years, and I believe this helped give him the basis from which he met the world, openly and without guile, with sincere acceptance and curiosity. He never failed me in any way, supporting me when I was most in need, looking out for me, holding my hand in hard times. We were country kids, the only two in our primary family, and we counted on each other in every way. Being born two years before me, he was a part of the world I was born into, solidly present from the beginning, a crucial part of my foundation. He felt responsible for me, as we explored the world around us.
We grew up in the midst of lemon trees, row upon row. Our father anticipated a son who would carry on the proud Italian immigrant tradition of ranching begun by our peasant grandfather. My brother Butch spent his young years in training, hoeing weeds, learning about trees, and working smudge pots on cold nights. He raised chickens for 4H.
As we know, none of this was true to his nature, and that he unerringly, found his own way into living his true life. The first time he came to New York City at 20, inspired by his love of jazz, he knew that he would soon call it home. Filled with humanity, it was a place where everything was possible. After he settled in NY, he was able to achieve all of his dreams. Together with Sheila, he helped create a beautiful family, unique in its closeness, a family that formed new traditions of annual rafting trips together, camping, and long conversations around the dinner table. Sheila and George gave the world a gift through their family. They also gave service in their fighting for the rights of those whose existences were in unfortunate and inhumane situations. He pursued his dreams of intellectual excellence, reaching his highest goals, and giving to others through teaching. And finally, he was able to pursue the passion he’d had since earliest childhood for photography where he celebrated his family, making art of his love.
Over the years of our adulthood, we tried to visit each other every year. I went to NY to be with his family and enjoy the marvels of Sheila’s meals, and explore the city. During the summer, he came to rural New Mexico to the retreat center that is my home. His kids all visited as they were growing up. Our lives were very different, though our bond was a constant in our lives.
During his last months and days, we talked together almost daily, with me on an iPad screen before him, we revisited our childhood, the time in our lives known only to us, mining it for moments that had helped shape who we became, and celebrating the unique qualities of having grown up in the country in an agricultural setting, always living in the midst of lemon trees. As children, we were, out of necessity, inventive in our play, and excited about exploring beyond the edges of our ordered world. We spoke of the day we came upon a magical long-forgotten garden known only to us and how it impacted our young psyches. We talked about the meaningful experience of our first TV, how it broadened his horizons and filled his imagination with possibility. We talked about the radio shows we loved before the advent of TV. We talked about his piano playing, and of the teacher he’d studied jazz with in LA. We spoke of the pride we felt in our Italian heritage, of our private times with our grandfather Grando. We spoke of how the first commercial avocados were pioneered by our extended family, and how we were part of the selection of the variety we all know today. It was a precious activity we indulged in, this revisiting our shared memories. Together, we came to the realization that ours had been a good childhood, a happy childhood, and that we were deeply glad for it’s unique and special qualities. We had never come to these simple words before, and we both felt it as the special moment it was in our dialogue.
I’m profoundly grateful we had this time together to reflect and share and to learn more about each other, it was helpful to each of us. I’m particularly grateful to his kids who supported us in weaving this precious thread of our relationship through his last days, and for helping me to be present with him, even in his last moments. It was the very best use of technology I have known.
I am forever grateful to Matthew for your devotion in making my brother’s last days the best and fullest they could be, and for handling his medical care during the last years. And to Caitlin for your loving care, for filling his days with good food and company and the richness of having grandchildren around him. And to Joe for the pleasure you gave him by virtually sharing your own sheep farm life with him. And Nathaniel for knowing to bring jazz into his last days, and for the blissful reveries it gave him. And Dan, for so thoughtfully and skillfully taking on all his paper work, for letting him rest knowing it was handled.
My brother was a kind and good being, he was curious and open to discovery, he was incapable of being anything but himself, unassuming, open, creative and thoughtful. He is a treasure in my life, and though our story may be over, I will continue to celebrate its gifts for the rest of my days. My gratitude is unending that he was my brother. My love for him is without end.
In Loving Memory
May 25, 1938 – March 23, 2022
Please Join Us For
A Memorial Gathering
Sunday, May 8, 3:00 pm
The New York Society For Ethical Culture
Two West 64th Street, New York City
Reception to follow.
Please note that we have taken steps to mitigate the risk of Covid exposure. We will be conducting the memorial and reception in a spacious hall with large windows open to allow for greater air flow. During the memorial service, the chairs will be laid out with as much space separating them as possible.
George Alexander Cavalletto, Jr. was born in San Luis Obispo, California, in May 1938, at the tail end of the great depression. Two years later his mother Jane (neé LaMonte), gave birth to a sister, Pattie. His father, George, Sr., was a successful lawyer, a son of Italian immigrants who had taken up farming in California.
In February 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled the coast in Santa Barbara, forming George’s first memory of World War II. His father joined the army and helped defeat fascism in Italy, while the rest of the family moved between military bases in Maryland and Texas, and then to San Francisco when his father returned.
After the war they moved to Goleta, where George had a bucolic childhood, exploring the countryside with his sister, visiting with an extensive network of cousins, and helping with his father’s lemon orchard.
After graduating from Santa Barbara High School and studying a year at Menlo Junior College, a small prep school, he enrolled at UCLA. A fraternity brother with an active social life, he nonetheless felt that something was missing. In the summer of 1958, he left school, took a bus across the country to New York City, and found what he was looking for in Greenwich Village, frequenting jazz clubs and working as a model for fashion ads and romance magazines.
In 1960, he enrolled at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. Dyslexic and until then not a great student, he dedicated himself to schoolwork, and over time his writing and close reading of texts improved. Graduating with a Bachelors in English Literature, he was named the General Studies “Humanities Student of the Year.” Forging ahead, he finished his Masters and began a doctoral thesis on William Wordsworth’s poetry.
However, at the end of 1967, increasingly concerned by the escalating U.S. war in Vietnam, he saw a storefront sign recruiting volunteers to publish news about anti-war efforts as part of the new Student Communications Network. The fledgling service needed a full-time director, so George abandoned his doctoral studies and become its managing editor, sending writers to cover anti-war protests and telexing their stories around the country to the rapidly-bourgeoning alternative press.
The following April, when Columbia University was taken over by students protesting the war and racial injustice, SCN’s journalists were the only media reporting from inside the occupied buildings, bringing them to national prominence. SCN merged with a similar organization, Liberation News Service, moving into an office George had built on Claremont Avenue. George helped establish the democratic collective principles — “the people who do the work should make the decisions” — that allowed this small news service to survive with an outsized impact for over a decade, even after he moved on to other projects.
One of the activist journalists who moved from Washington D.C. as part of the LNS merger was Sheila Ryan, and within a few months the two had fallen in love. One year later, in August 1969, George and Sheila married in Cape Cod, in a ceremony attended by their conservative families and their radical compatriots, with a friend playing the Internationale on the organ as the bride walked down the aisle in a traditional white gown.
On honeymoon in Paris, George and Sheila met an activist who suggested they travel to Cairo to meet with the PLO. From Cairo, they proceeded to Jordan, spending a month visiting Palestinian refugee camps and armed militia groups who struggled against both Israeli forces and the Jordanian monarchy, writing about their experiences for the news service back home.
A few months later, George joined a delegation of radical leftists visiting Cuba to meet Vietnamese representatives. When the young Americans were asked to reveal their class background by stating their parents’ occupations, George said his father was raised as a farmer, at which he was excitedly greeted as a fellow member of the global peasantry, a misunderstanding he did not correct. On his return, he wrote to alternative newspapers, urging them to pay less attention to rock music so they could focus on covering the war.
In the summer of 1970, George and Sheila returned to the Middle East for a year in Jordan and Lebanon reporting on the Palestinian struggle. While in Amman, armed conflict broke out between the Jordanian monarchy and the Palestinian fedayeen. Despite the danger, George and Sheila remained, documenting the fighting and its aftermath. George described the experience of running through a massive gun battle as a flashback to playing football: you had to keep your head down, dodge and weave, and hope you make it through.
They returned to New York to publish their reporting a few months before the birth of their first child, Matthew. Over the next decade, he was joined by Daniel, Nathaniel, Joseph, and Anna Caitlin. George was a playful parent, making up stories and inventing magical characters that he insisted were real.
Throughout the Seventies, George and Sheila continued to focus on the Middle East, combining reporting with activism. In 1975, they co-founded the Palestine Solidarity Committee, organizing forums for PLO representatives to speak to the public, and leading demonstrations to highlight the Palestinian struggle.
In 1978, they founded Claremont Research and Publications, a news clipping service that subscribed to a hundred different newspapers and magazines from which they photocopied and indexed every article on the Middle East, producing 500-page binders to be mailed to customers every week. In an era before the Internet, this service was the best way for governments and academics to stay up to date on news about the region. They raised their family in their workplace, with one room set aside as a playroom for the children.
A decade later, George returned to academia, enrolling at Columbia’s Teachers College to study psychology and communications, taking classes in computer technology and the use of multimedia in education.
Completing his second Masters degree in 1993, he began two decades of teaching at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, with stints at Hunter and Fordham. His sociology classes for undergraduates and graduate students covered the relationship of the self to society, and the sociology of class and of family dynamics, both throughout history and in modernity. Students describe his classes as interesting and challenging as he pushed them to engage with new ideas in each week’s reading.
At the same time, he was working towards a doctorate in sociology at City University’s Graduate Center, which he completed in 2003. He was particularly interested in the intellectual history of social theory, and the boundary between psychology and sociology, An expanded version of his thesis was published in 2007 as Crossing the Psycho-Social Divide: Freud, Weber, Adorno & Elias, exploring connections between the ideas of major figures in psychology and sociology. While in graduate school he served as the co-editor of Psychoculture, and later hosted gatherings of the New York Psycho-Social Group, an academic reading group.
The family’s life was anchored by shared meals and annual traditions George helped establish, setting the table for dozens of people at holiday feasts and poring over travel guides to find remote destinations to which the family would return again and again, including Island Pond, the Raquette River canoe route, Quebec’s winter carnival, and the beaches of Cape Breton.
In November of 2012, George and Sheila were in Pennsylvania, knocking on doors for the Obama campaign, when Sheila reported not feeling well. Over the next few weeks, as her condition worsened, the cause was diagnosed as an aggressive brain tumor, and despite intensive treatment she died at home less than three months later.
In the wake of Sheila’s death, George retired from teaching and took up photography, a life-long hobby. With the same dedication he gave all his endeavors, he studied camera work and digital post-processing at the International Center of Photography. Initially focusing on street photography, his work blossomed when he returned to capturing images of his family members, as he had been doing for decades, informed by his new skills. His photos have been exhibited in numerous galleries around the world. His final project, a book of his best work from this period, is entitled What You Love.
In 2018, George was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and lymphoma. Although medication beat his cancer and controlled the symptoms of Parkinson’s, its inexorable advance slowly sapped his strength, eventually leaving him vulnerable to pneumonia. Surrounded by family members in his last months at home, he passed away peacefully in his own bed on March 23, 2022.