An Appreciation


GEORGE PICKOW, who died on December 10th, aged 88, was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Following art training at the Cooper Union, he worked in all areas of photographic media, from making training films for the US navy during the second World War to illustrating children’s books for Scribner’s and the Oxford University Press. 

He also worked with his wife, Jean Ritchie, the famous singer, dulcimer-player and folk-song collector (whom he married in 1950) in the production and illustration of her many books on the traditional music of the Southern Appalachians, including the prize-winning Celebration of Life,and The Swapping Song Book(1952), a volume of songs from her native Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky.

George was well known in music circles in the US during the 1950s as a photographer for record-sleeves. As a portrait photographer he took memorable pictures of numerous Greenwich Village musicians, including Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Jordan and Pete Seeger, and of many famous visual artists, including Edward Hopper.

In cinematography, the feature film Festival, a documentary about the Newport Folk Festival, directed by Murray Lerner (on which George worked as associate producer and cameraman), won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. For National Educational Television, he did all the location filming for their classic folklore series, Lyrics and Legends. Another film, a colour documentary of the Padstow Mayday celebration in Cornwall, called Oss! Oss! Wee Oss!(made in collaboration with Peter Kennedy of the BBC), became a classic in its field.

In 1952 Jean was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to Britain and Ireland. Her idea was to retrace the steps by which her family’s songs had travelled to America, by seeking out their origins in England, Ireland, and Scotland. George accompanied Jean on her Fulbright trip, and together they recorded dozens of folk singers and traditional musicians (using the first ever portable, reel-to-reel recording equipment). George all the time was taking photographs, and paid his way by writing picture-stories for magazines back in the US (the New York Sunday Newsin particular). Amongst the musicians recorded and photographed were Séamus Ennis and Leo Rowsome on the uileann pipes, the singers Elizabeth Cronin, Sarah Makem, and Máire Áine Nic Dhonncha, the famous Traveller singer Margaret Barry, and many others. Their album of field-recordings from Ireland, As I Roved Out,appeared in 1960.

While in Ireland, George photographed other aspects of Irish life: the bird-market in Dublin, road-bowling, coursing, hunting, GAA games (including the craft of making sliotars), life on the Aran Islands, wren-boys, and Christmas traditions, as well as images from the modern Ireland of 1952: the Garda Síochána in Dublin Castle, the launch of Aer Lingus at the new Dublin airport, and a bustling O’Connell Street, packed with cyclists. As a result, a unique and priceless collection of images came into being.

In the course of a return visit to Ireland in July 1991, as part of the Galway Arts Festival, Jean and George were themselves recorded, and their recollections of folk-song-collecting in Ireland preserved for posterity. George’s seemingly limitless store of hilarious stories also captivated his audience. The festival hosted an exhibition of George’s work, which then travelled to west Cork, where he and Jean met up again with all those locals who featured in George’s 1952 photos. It was a memorable occasion. Last stop on that trip was in Dublin, where Jean and George were special guests at the launch of the Bringing it All Back HomeTV series, made by Philip King and Nuala O’Connor, in which Jean was prominently featured.

A further exhibition took place in Galway in 1996, to mark the acquisition of the entire Ritchie-Pickow Collection of Irish photographic and sound-recordings by the James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway. Declining health prevented any subsequent return. George is survived by his wife Jean and their two sons, Jon and Peter.– DÓC