Rest in Peace George Pitts, the Visionary Behind Vibe Magazine’s Iconic Look

Photo: George Pitts by Clayton Cubitt. Courtesy of SPD. (detail)

Today we mourn the death of George Pitts: artist, editor, teacher, and visionary who left behind a legacy that goes far beyond the scope of his work. Pitts passed away on Friday, March 3, after a prolonged illness. As the founding Photography Director of Vibe magazine from 1993 to 2004, Pitts was one of the most influential figures of the era.

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Founded by producer Quincy Jones, Vibe was dedicated to African American culture in all its glory. Focused primarily on R&B and Hip Hop, the magazine was a showcase for the flyest actors, artists, and entertainers of the time. It was about more than just music, it was about history, style, and art—in large part due to Pitts’ inimitable ability to pair photographer with subject to flawless effect.

Method Man, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes, Master P, Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown and Lauryn Hill (February 1998)

What made Vibe singular was the way it avoided being a mere music magazine; it showed music as part of a larger culture and history, one that was as much a look as it was a sound. While he manned the helm, Pitts ushered in a new era of talent, giving young artists, illustrators, and fashion stylists their big break. The list is as astounding as the artwork itself. Pitts seamlessly mixed talents like Andrew Dosunmu, Hype Williams, Jonathan Mannion, Ben Watts, and Eric Johnson with Juergen Teller, Bruce Weber, David LaChapelle, Mary Ellen Mark, and Ellen von Unwerth.

People like to talk about 2016 being a rough year, but flash back to one devastating week in 2009 when word came that Vibe magazine had folded*. Then, two days later, Michael Jackson died. By that time, Pitts was the Director of Photographic Practices at Parsons The New School, in New York. He assumed the mantle and penned a beautiful tribute for SPD.

Janet Jackson (November 1997)

Tupac Shakur (February 1994)

“Working at Vibe changed my own life for the better, and enabled editors including myself to engage in an international discourse with a wide, disparate range of readers: the core fan base of Hip-Hop generation readers, popular music lovers, style and culture mavens, hipsters of all stripes, photography connoisseurs, serious musicologists, black culture militants, and scholars of all kinds. No doubt there are reader bases that I’m forgetting, but this random listing only confirms for me, the broad appeal that Vibe was able to sustain for 16 years. Vibe was a magazine that one was as likely to find in a dentist’s office as in the stunning New York abode of a figure like Madonna,” Pitts remembered.

Throughout his tribute, he takes us back to the days when Vibe not only covered culture, but it was culture itself. Vibe set the highwater mark, defining the look of the times rather than following trends. Paging through old issues is like looking at family albums and yearbooks, all the “They were so young!” and “I wonder what happened to…” and “Did we really wear that?”

The Notorious B.I.G. and Faith Evans (October 1995)

Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac and Suge Knight (February 1996)

That was George Pitts and his inimitable ability to assemble a team, from top to bottom, working to translate the three-dimensional world onto glossy pages. Pitts understood the photograph because he was an artist himself, publishing his work in a host of books, magazines, and books. His pictorials had titles like “Cracked Actor,” “The Serpents Egg,” Five Women,” “She Stands Brightly,” and “Game Changer”—which may entirely surprise you when you peruse his website.

Crave celebrates the legacy of George Pitts, one unlike anything or anyone else, before or since.

“The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” (August 1994)

George Pitts by Clayton Cubitt (detail). Courtesy of SPD.

* Vibe was resurrected in 2012, and continues to publish online.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.