When I first met my undergraduate adviser, George Pitts, a prolific photographer and the longtime photo director at VIBE, I didn't understand his work. I was just getting started in photography, and to me, his subtle nude portraiture seemed like aestheticized erotica. What stuck out was his voracious appetite for learning and consuming art. George is probably best known for having defined hip-hop photography in the 90s during his time at VIBE, and in our early meetings, he would constantly cite contemporary and long-past idols, from Claude Cahun to Bettina Rheims. I would furiously take notes. Only later, as I began to study the various photographers he mentioned and admired, did I begin to understand his method. Slowly, I picked up on just what made his way of capturing subjects— especially women—so interesting. I also began to draw connections between my work and his, and realized he was quickly becoming one of my own idols.
George died earlier this year at the age of 65. It was only when we lost him that I saw how his genius had touched hundreds of photographers, editors, and writers. I was struck by the turnout at his memorial services, and it got me thinking about the significance of having an idol—particularly in this field.Even as it searches for novelty, photography is fundamentally additive. It's a process of building a tradition and a language—one that owes as much to what came before as it depends on what is still to come. At a moment when billions of photos are made every day, people tend to forget about the before, especially in reference to new work. George didn't think that way. Connecting your work to that of the past was so important, he thought. It adds complexity.With that in mind, for our annual photo issue we reached out to 16 up-and-coming photographers and asked which photographer inspired them to pursue the medium. Then we approached their "idols" to see if they would be willing to publish work in the issue as well. What was provided, we think, creates a unique conversation about the line of influence between younger and older artists. It also stays true to our commitment of bringing up young talent while honoring masters in the field. Some of the pairings, like our cover stars Tommy Kha and William Eggleston, both born in Memphis but separated by several generations, are more directly linked stylistically. With others, like Tasneem Alsultan and Maggie Steber, you may have to give a second look to see the lines drawn between their work.Taken together, these photographic conversations reveal the liveliness and vitality of the discipline. They forge aesthetic connections and deepen artistic understanding, much like those first conversations with George did for me.Nothing will fill the void he has left behind. The best we can do for our idols is to continue the story.