George Stoney inspired us all. He built community. He invited his friends to meet his friends, colleagues, former students, and family. He enlarged our sense of possibility. I saw him a few days before his 96th birthday, met another former student of his, and learned of his early work with the acclaimed photographer Lewis Hine.
I imagine I still will be learning about George from the many people whom he educated, trained, respected, and with whom he collaborated. In 2008, George reminded me that after the stock market crash of 1929, the real depths of the Depression didn’t begin until four years later in 1932! Not only did he live through those years, but also he taught a course in Images of the Thirties at NYU.
In early 2011, he called to ask if I were going to the Flaherty Film Seminar that June. When I learned that he would be one of the featured filmmakers, I decided to attend. He would be showing work-in-progress – yes, George never stopped making films. In recent years, he revisited the descendants of the babies whose births he filmed in 1952 in his classic documentary ALL MY BABIES.
I first saw ALL MY BABIES when George taught me documentary at Columbia University’s School of the Arts while I was enrolled in Columbia Journalism School where I now teach.
(PHOTO: George Stoney & Howard Weinberg at American Museum of the Moving Image by Mike Hazard.)
Erik Barnouw, who wrote Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, had invited George to teach at Columbia’s Film School that he then headed.
George had known Robert Flaherty. His grandfather had been a doctor on the Isle of Aran where Robert Flaherty made his 1934 film Man of Aran that George deconstructed in his valuable 1978 documentary HOW THE MYTH WAS MADE: A STUDY OF ROBERT FLAHERTY’S MAN OF ARAN. Until a few years ago, George regularly traveled to Ireland to teach. He admired a three-screen cinema with a café in Dublin where filmmakers and film lovers could meet.
George was always interested in ways of bringing people together. After he worked for the National Film Board of Canada’s “Challenge for Change” in the late 1960s, he introduced me to the Fogo Island project, in which films that showed different aspects of a Newfoundland community helped neighbors learn about their neighbors’ problems and begin to solve them together.
I saw George most often in the context of The New York Film/Video Council, a volunteer organization founded in 1946 to build connections among the independent media community by programming events that ranged from documentary to narrative feature to animation to new technologies affecting us all. Both of us were past presidents and board members. In recent years, George’s NYU apartment home became a clubhouse for monthly meetings to make it easier for him to attend. But he still would attend our events held around the city accompanied by a colleague or assistant.
Much has been written about George’s crucial role as a founder of public access cable television and indeed, MNN, Manhattan Neighborhood Network is honoring him with a film retrospective beginning today and recently opened the George C. Stoney Public Access Studio in a renovated Firehouse in East Harlem.
George was generous to so many people. When I taught documentary in the journalism program at NYU, he helped me navigate the Avery Fisher Media Library and told me about films that I could find there – and when I mentioned a documentary that I wanted to show, he often knew someone involved in its making, which is how I got to know his good friend, the late editor Lora Hays, who came to my classes.
He invited me to his annual summer birthday party at the Long Island home of his late companion Betty Puleston, and there several summers running, I would meet media makers from around the world. In his late 80s, George had traveled to Brazil!
George was simply amazing, modestly amazing, asserting his values and interests gently.
I look forward to Mike Hazard’s biographical film about George and to David Bagnall’s completion of his recent collaborations with George, including a personal memoir.
For now, it’s hard to imagine a fuller or more complete life than George enjoyed.