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Remembering George Forss Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

3 August 2021

George Forss, prized for his images of New York City, died on July 17 at home in Cambridge, N.Y. from heart failure. He was 80.

He was born in the South Bronx to a father who was a street tough deported to Finland not long after George was born and a mother who, as an amateur photographer, was something of a paparazzi before it became a vocation. She would camp out in the city waiting to capture images of celebrities with her box camera and a flash gun.

She lost custody of her son, however, who grew up in an orphanage. But when he left the orphanage in his late teens, he found his mother suffering from osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis and became her caretaker. He himself had suffered from polio.

As a bike messenger, he would take photos of the city and sell them for $5 on the street.

He taught himself photography, buying a camera from a pawnshop on Eight Ave. in Manhattan after discovering the art when he visited the 1964 New York World's Fair in his early twenties.

He built a darkroom in the rundown frame house in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn that he shared with his mother, who also shared his enthusiasm for photography. And in 2016, he published Norma Forss Photography 1932-1987.

As a bike messenger, he would take photos of the city and sell them for $5 on the street.

That's where he was discovered by the photojournalist David Douglas Duncan, who marveled at his work and decided to promote it. Duncan published New York/New York: Masterworks of a Street Peddler, making Forss a household name.

He appeared on the Today show and was the subject of a BBC documentary. The Brooklyn Museum exhibited his photographs and the International Center of Photography in Manhattan acquired them. He started charging $20 for his photos, and he eventually stopped selling on the sidewalks.

In the late 1980s, an uncle left him a modest inheritance he used to buy a storefront building on Main Street in Cambridge, near the Vermont border. There he opened a gallery on the ground floor to sell his work alongside local artists.

He also intensified an early interest in aliens and UFOs, driving his Volkswagen van to investigate tips of UFO sightings. He believed an ancient race of extraterrestrials had given him his photographic talent and helped him survive a difficult youth.

He continued to care for his mother in Cambridge. A half brother Mickey, who survives him, also lived with them. Another half brother Donald and Forss's partner Donna Wynbrand also survive him.

He learned to build film cameras from old parts. But he used a Kodak digital camera in later years. Most recently he was taking pandemic portraits with a Microsoft Lumia 640 smartphone.

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