“One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one needs. I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”
Forged in steel at the Yacht Basin at the World Financial Center
New York City
George Forss – In Memoriam
On a sleepy, summer Sunday morning, the phone rang.
There was unspeakably sad news.
George Forss had passed away.
From all appearances, he went to sleep, and never woke up.
That would be so perfect. Those who knew and loved and admired him, would hope that was the case.
It has been a tough year worldwide on so many levels. George was struggling to keep life going. He was stressed because he had many familial responsibilities…and in such challenging times…a pandemic…they were even harder to deal with.
But, he continued working on new projects, always had time to speak to friends from afar on the phone. He really enjoyed visiting with his very good local friends, with whom he shared many happy times.
He had grown up in the big bad city, very poor, in a very dysfunctional environment. He had polio as a child, and was naturally shy.
His mother was a real character, who as a young woman, became obsessed with movie and stage stars. She taught herself how to use a camera, and spent hours in the theater district waiting and watching for celebrities, who she photographed. She often brought back finished prints to get their autographs.
In George’s childhood loneliness, because of his illness, he picked up his mom’s camera and tried to figure out what made it work.
Once he did, and started shooting, it became his omnipresent ally.
Although George always carried that shyness and hesitancy when meeting new people, among friends, he played music, ran screenings of films, wrote, loved opera, loved exploring, and never was without a camera. He invented techniques, and was a whiz with what some would call antiquated equipment… fixed what others might simply discard.
We’ll soon be posting an extensive essay on our website about the last major project that he worked on, The Access Project. There will be accompanying images and texts. It was a ten year project that involved dozens of wonderful friends and clients.
It made our hearts sing. It redefined our city as it had changed over the decade since George worked with well-known photographer David Douglas Duncan on his first book, New York/New York, masterworks of a street peddler.
We finished the last shoot in 2000.
I worked for months organizing all of the images. George kept printing his negatives as we looked at the preliminary material over and over again, finding new treasures every time.
Then, the top tier silver gelatin prints arrived…magnificent and glistening.
I started laying out the pages and writing captions. We were going to produce, in a very old-fashioned way, a dummy book, having full control over the images and the content, treating the project as a priceless gem…which it was.
Ten years of our lives… George’s, Mitch’s and mine…and the glorious cast of characters who participated.
One sweet September morning, our world…and the dream of a stunningly beautiful book to celebrate George’s vision… collapsed with the Towers.
It is so very sad to think about.
Thankfully, George loved the exhibitions of that phase of his work and he understood its importance.
We will miss him beyond words, but he leaves a legacy of great art…a true miracle.
July 19, 2021
The Access Project
In 1992, George Forss was offered a retrospective in the Weston Town Hall in Weston, Connecticut. George asked that we help to curate as well as frame the exhibition.
As we were preparing the show for installation, there were so many pieces, that we decided to temporarily hang them in our gallery spaces. It also helped to have a sense of how the show would ultimately look. It was then January of 1993, and deeply winter, but the work was so inspiring that we thought, “Why not share this?”
So, we made a few dozen calls and told people about this temporary but wonderful installation, got some refreshments together, and had a series of open house days. It was quite wonderful because it was so relaxed. George was here for part of the time and answered technical questions and met many people who had already bought his work from us in the past. It was altogether a really lovely experience.
Since Mitch was spending a lot of time with this work, he realized something very profound. All the New York photographs were taken from locations to which George, with his street smarts and limited resources, could gain easy access. George had bicycled, but mostly walked, and was limited by what he could carry.
In 1984 David Douglas Duncan had produced New York New York/Masterworks of a Street Peddler, a superb book of George’s work from the mid-seventies to mid-eighties. George had exhibited often in many venues since then, but we thought it was time to establish a fresh perspective on the city.
Since one of the many services we offer as a gallery is to deliver and install art in both living and work spaces, we have had opportunities to see some incredibly spectacular views all over the city.
With the notion of asking friends and clients to give George access to shoot from their homes, offices, rooftops and other spaces, we thought there could be another book.
We proposed the idea to George and he thought it was perfect. So, we began the process of asking what people thought of the idea. Everyone was so generous in facilitating the process, we couldn’t have been more fortunate.
With different kinds of film, several cameras, lenses, tripods and assistants (mostly Mitch!), we began to record our Emerald City. Gotham was going to be revisited, and we hoped, redefined.
One client, working for the Port Authority, was able to get us access to amazing locations all over New York and New Jersey. Abandoned grain terminals, heliports, piers, tunnel exhaust towers, airport control towers were all available, with New York as port being a key element. He has been a true supporter, with boundless energy and never complaining about the extremes of heat and cold or the waiting, endless waiting for the moment. He also overcame extreme height fright, (Yes, the Hitchcock Vertigo kind), to be our sidekick.
Another client facilitated a shoot at the observatory of the 70 Pine Street, one of the most spectacular skyscrapers in the city, but without the fame of Empire or Chrysler. It is Gotham personified, an Art Deco fantasy of chrome and steel.
When George showed us the print of Night Jazz for the first time, we were spellbound. It was like seeing Rhapsody in Blue. It is the most musical photograph.
We had access to a rooftop view from Park Slope that gives incredible perspective of our proximity to the harbor, with layers of church steeples leading visually to the Statue of Liberty.
There is a spectacular view from a Plaza Street picture window as well as the roof for an expanse of Brooklyn to the city that is also defining of how close we are to “the center of the universe”. How to Buy a Brooklyn Brownstone and Plaza Street Panorama are two of the greatest images from that location.
Views from a Park Avenue law office revealed the huge and striking buffalo heads on the New York Central building, a perspective that so few New Yorkers ever get to see, but one that reminds us of our history in a very compelling way.
The Chief Curator of American Art at the Brooklyn Museum met us incredibly early one misty morning and gave access to the director’s office. The gentle and subtle study shows another facet of Brooklyn that so many of us love: the quiet and peaceful alternative to the city we’re so much a part of.
A client who worked in the Bronx gave access to the Bronx rooftop where we found the sculptural wonder in white. He also provided the Reflections/Brooklyn Skyline location and the South Street Seaport view, both taken from the same location. With changes in equipment and movement, there are very different results.
One of our assistants had been with us for more than 13 years. He now works full time at a graphics firm. Just before the firm moved to a new location, he was able to provide a site resulting in the West Side Photo District and WTC/Watertowers shots.
The corporate curator of Pfizer had been a fan of George’s work for a long time. She brought us up to the roof of Pfizer herself and had workers be available to facilitate the shoot. The result is a new and defining view of perhaps the most beloved of New York buildings, the Chrysler Building.
A client who was an attorney gave us access to his Water Street offices, yielding the amazing Customs House with Fabergé Egg (a marvel that we have tremendous fun showing to people who can’t believe that it exists.)
Another suite of offices from the same location produced the vertical panorama of the Statue of Liberty (a shot that reveals nothing of the 20th century), as well as a sublime view of the Battery and the river.
The director of Prospect Park gave us the run of the top of Litchfield Villa, and the top of the arch at Grand Army Plaza. She also suggested we ask a couple who lived on Prospect Park West whose views “from the top” include Prospect Park West/Storm Over Manhattan.
From Roosevelt Island, we got enchanting terrace perspectives, and found the East River and the city on a glowing evening.
A client brought us up on the most spectacular autumn evening in 1995 to One Pierrepont Street. When we first went up, we saw one breathtaking skyline view. And then we realized we had a 360 degree canvas!
The crescent moon with the Verrazano in the distance and a quiet Brooklyn Heights street in the foreground is the epitome of access.
The vistas are there but you have to know what to do with them. Years later, we found Glowy Skyline, an unexpected bonus from that spectacular night.
An electrician brought us up to the top of a building in the process of being built… the new Federal Courthouse in Chinatown. It was the coldest, most awful weather day, but profound photographs emerged from the struggle, showing architectural clusters of 19th and 20th century styles, juxtaposed in a completely different way than had ever been seen before.
An attorney gave us the Grace Building with a bird’s-eye view of Bryant Park. Another provided exciting Midtown view from Davis, Polk, & Wardwell. Through another client’s brother, we had glorious West Side time exposures, and through the friend of a friend, we covered the East Side with amazingly parallel shots.
Someone who collected George’s work gave us the run of 101 Park, from which intimately lit Grand Central Station could be seen amid so many taller structures.
A neighbor’s dad was kind enough to get George and Mitch entrée to the Intrepid on the Fourth of July, access that resulted in several fireworks shots.
A sound studio equipment studio gave us a far west side Midtown location from which Ten to Six With Curves was taken, among other shots.
A client showed us her State Street garret, where the Statue of Liberty and aerials were visible in a quirky, quintessentially Brooklyn way.
Clients let us know about great views they had seen, and often connected with friends on behalf of the project.
One such example was for a Northside view on top of the Brooklyn Brewery, where we found stunning juxtapositions of churches and sculpture along with the usual suspects of city classics. We also had access us to a high floor in the Woolworth Building to record what perhaps now is the most poignant photograph: The Towers Stand Alone.
A very engaged client provided us with several locations in the twenties on the East Side, fantastic architectural clusters and water towers along with his great enthusiasm and support.
A physician we knew took time from his hectic schedule at St. Vincent’s to get us terrific Village views and a companion image of St. Vincent’s Garden to the perfect We Laugh We Cry, an unexpected folk art painting from an abandoned grain terminal.
Then, in November of 1996, there was Gotham Revealed: A New New York, an exhibition of the photographs George had taken in the first three years of the project.
Curatorial decisions were made to show the range George could get with different lenses and formats. Sometimes, standing in the same place, but changing equipment led to an entirely different perspective.
It was a very well-attended and well-received exhibition which led many who saw the work and understood the concept to suggest even more locations.
We worked for four more years and George took the last images in 2000.
As we were working on the text and the organization of the project in 2001, the catastrophe happened and we were frozen.
The Towers appear dozens of times simply because they were a part of so many of the compositions from so many different vantage points.
They are seen from afar and from close up in very unique ways. George’s most famous image had been the QEII in New York, taken in 1977, which is a profoundly stunning image of the ship in front of the brilliantly lit Twin Towers.
At first, when George began to shoot in the 1970’s, he didn’t quite know how to deal with the Towers compositionally. That one image, though, propelled him to embrace them, which is what he did for more than three decades.
The vital thing to note here is that this book was never about the Towers, but rather about unique views that some New Yorkers have. It was a way to understand how intimate New York can be, as well as majestic.
We aren’t healed yet, and probably won’t ever be in some ways, but the body of work created during the course of the project is New York through the decade of the 90’s, a decade of many changes in the city.
Our profound thanks to all who participated.
Park Slope Gallery
March 2, 2002
George At Work
Background details for some of the photographs in The Access Project
Crescent Moon/Brooklyn Heights 1995
Because of the large format camera used, George was able to capture the intimacy of the street scene as well as the expanse of the Brooklyn shore looking towards the Verrazano Bridge.
Which Way to Brooklyn? 1994
So many of us have driven this cloverleaf thousands of times, but when seen from a distance, it is quite an elegant design and yet at the same time could be construed as a kind of game board.
Slice of Brooklyn with Skyline 1994
The large format negative pulls together the array of Brooklyn rooftops, the Williamsburg Bridge and the mid-Manhattan skyline in the distance.
Reflections/Brooklyn Skyline 1995
Taken from an office on Water Street with views facing into the streets of the lower Manhattan as well as the river, this particular shot captures a bit of South Street Seaport and the FDR Drive, but in reflection, and most prominently, a quirky and changing Brooklyn skyline.
Grand Army Plaza/Brooklyn
This is a double exposure taken with a large format camera. There are many elements to find hidden in the layers of the image, including, most majestically, the elements of the statuary program on the arch.
How to Buy a Brooklyn Brownstone 1993
The sign that gave the title of the photograph is gone, but for a long time, it helped many of us think of the notion. In a strange twist of the composition and perspective, the Williamsburg Savings Bank Building seems as tall as The Twin Towers. Except for our one “skyscraper”, low-rise Brooklyn appears very different from the lower skyline.
Studio in the City with Bike
West 17th Street Composition
These two photographs each capture a moment in time. In both, George captured a solitary figure in the middle of the big city.
In Studio, George was set up with his camera and shot while the figure was working in his rooftop studio. A moment later, the man got up from his chair, shut the lights, closed the door and took his bike. The scene changed completely in the most natural way, but the human presence really made a difference.
In West 17th Street, the story is exactly reversed. George was set up, loved the great composition of the Empire State Building and watertowers, but he felt something was missing. Suddenly a figure emerged from the door in the bright sun. He took out a cigarette, lit it and leaned on the railing, casting a shadow. Other than the smoking part, it was perfect and George had his shot.
Liberty Building Park Slope
The Liberty Building was a revelation. We had had two locations during the course of a magnificent October day. It was still crystal clear and the light was so spectacular that it seemed a waste not to use it.
I suggested to George that he should go up to our Park Slope roof because we have a great skyline view as well as a wonderful expanse of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty.
When we saw the proofs, we were amazed. The Liberty Building had gone up as the Statue was going up in the harbor.
We had seen it a million times, but because of the large format camera, George was able to get the building in great detail and caught the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
This was a favorite in France when George had his retrospective at the Musée Orange.
Night Jazz/70 Pine was shot from the observatory of the building, one of the most spectacular skyscrapers in the city, but without the fame of the Empire State or Chrysler Building. It is Gotham personified, an Art Deco fantasy of chrome and steel.
Night Jazz/70 Pine
It had been a misty and overcast day, and I drove in to pick George and Mitch up, expecting them to be somewhat disappointed with the less than pleasant weather.
Even though George had only just taken the photographs he was absolutely certain that magic had happened. Somehow the mist and light rain softened the lights and provided a glowy lingering aura.
This “softness” was a great contrast to the angularity of the building. It was so lyrical, so jazzy, so unexpected, that it immediately felt as though “Rhapsody in Blue” come to life in an image.
There were several other great shots from that location that revealed surprises.
Park Slope Gallery
A World Without George
Park Slope Gallery
I’m having a hard time imagining a world without George.
He has become so deeply embedded in my psyche that I feel like I need to call him first, about this stunning news…the news of his unexpected departure.
He ought be the first person to know…
But it kind of makes sense. Since I met George, I have spent more time with George than anyone else, other than Phyllis, and my son Dylan.
And I feel I have, what seems like, a lot of friends. Between Park Slope Gallery and my music, (George might have been one of my biggest fans), I have spent hundreds of hours with George, standing on rooftops, looking out of windows, and finding ourselves in the most exotic locations.
A client brought us two photographs to frame. Phyllis, who is a lifelong photographer, was bowled over. I had never seen her so impressed. I remember that she asked the client if George’s work was somewhere in the realm of affordable. He gave us George’s number, and George came over to show us some of his prints. That is how it started.
Here is a brief sketch of what happened next:
One of our friends had an unusual job. She was the manager of a skyscraper.
It occurred to me that maybe she would consider having George shoot from the location that she managed. After hearing more about George, she agreed.
George thought that it was a wonderful idea. I imagined that she might know some other people in her unusual line of work, and maybe George could get some interesting shots from those locations, too.
The Project Starts…and Continues:
George drove down to the city with several cameras and lenses and tripods. He had brought different kinds of film and other equipment. It was a lot of stuff in, I recollect, nine different bags and cases…each very organized. He said that he would never know what he would need in a given situation, so he wanted to be prepared.
After the shoot, George went back upstate and developed the negatives. He sent us contact sheets from his 35 mm cameras, and small prints from the 4×5 and 6×7 large format cameras.
The photographs were magnificent.
This was the first one:
The World Financial Center/WTC Uptown View
George came from upstate about four times a year. I would start to line up an itinerary of locations and permissions, while he developed the negatives from the last shoot up in Cambridge. Then he would come down again, and we could go on as many shoots we could for about three days at a time.
He would sleep over. We always got out at first light, and shoot till dark.
The project, as it developed, (no pun intended), wasn’t exactly what I had imagined. It ended up happening not via help from a collection of skyscraper managers, but from many New Yorkers, from all walks of life, who started to hear about the project. It was word of mouth, people telling people about unique points of view of the city. Everyone wanted to share; it was a community effort.
George told the story about walking around Manhattan with David Douglas Duncan, and David wondering aloud to George what it would be like if they could shoot from any window they wanted.
Well, we couldn’t do exactly that, but we did have an incredible variety.
Every shoot was a mystery. We never knew what George would find.
The obvious shot could be right in front of us and George was shooting off to the side. He would set up various cameras and wait until the time was right. He would run around from camera to camera, or he would wait endlessly until something unexpected happened. He was always brilliant and engaged.
My Favorite George Story:
One of my greatest memories was going to 70 Pine St. When it was built as the Cities Service building in 1932, It was the third tallest skyscraper in the world. An Art Deco masterpiece.
When George and I arrived, we were expected. The contact was an executive whose wife was an artist, and our names had been left with management. We were treated with a bit of skepticism. But the papers were in order, so we loaded up the gear, and were taken to the highest floor that the regular elevators could go. Then, we were escorted to a small elevator to make the final assent.
The entire time, the elevator operator, an older man who had been doing this job for years, gave us his well-rehearsed speech…about when the building was built, how much steel, how much concrete, etc. All the physical and historical details. Then he told us about all of the American Presidents who he had personally lifted to the top of the building.
When we reached the top, the elevator opened up to this large octagonal space, appointed in Art Deco, German silver trimmings. It was beyond magnificent, and we saw windows and balconies, on the eight sides of the room. It was stunning, like a movie set from Batman.
The elevator operator swept his hand toward the windows, and told George he could choose one vantage point. George meekly started to look around to choose what would be his location.
I was horrified. Just one window! All these possibilities, and just one window?
What could I say?
In the greatest act of super-confidence for me, I overcame being stunned. I realized that the elevator operator had not been just spewing details on our ride up, but he was an advocate for lower Manhattan. I took a chance.
I asked if he had ever seen the photograph of the QEII passing in front of the World Trade Center.
He exclaimed, “Did he take that picture”?
Then he said, “He can shoot from anywhere he wants.”
It was because of George’s former accomplishment, but I was happy to have been able to think on my feet.
He was able to shoot in every direction…from every window.
It was a true partnership………………..
I will miss him profoundly…….Mitch Freidlin