George C. Stoney, 1916–2012: CDS Director Tom Rankin Remembers an Iconic Documentarian

George Stoney talks with Tom Rankin at an event at UNC–Chapel Hill, 2009. Photograph by Mike Hazard.

In George Stoney’s July 14 obituary, the New York Times described him as “a dean of American documentary film . . . acclaimed in equal measure for his roles as a filmmaker, teacher, and prophet of social change at the barrel of a camera.” Here, Center for Documentary Studies director Tom Rankin shares a few thoughts on the North Carolina native, followed by a slideshow of some of Stoney’s photographs.

We all knew it would happen one day, but I have to admit that there were numerous times over the last twenty years when I sat with George Stoney and in the midst of conservation wondered if he just wouldn’t go on forever. Even when his physical energy waned his mind was still running full tilt.  He never stopped working, thinking, and encouraging, up until the very end.

Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1916 his trail went through many of the most important movements and moments of America in the 20th century. He attended UNC–Chapel Hill and fondly remembered being influenced by his conversations with Frank Porter Graham on the UNC campus. He worked at the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City in 1938, he did field research for Gunnar Myrdal and Ralph Bunche in the South, and worked with Dorothea Lange and others on the Farm Security Administration Photographic project. He wasn’t hired as a photographer, but on at least one occasion took a camera to the field in Alabama to make photographs he believed needed to be in the project.  A beautiful set of medium format negatives from Childersburg, Alabama, are part of the FSA archive at the Library of Congress [see slideshow below]. Still in his twenties, George served as a photographic intelligence officer in World War II, furthering his experience with the power of the image as witness, as provocateur.

I jokingly asked him if there was anything he hadn’t done, anything about the American South he hadn’t tried to tell about through film or hadn’t tried to change for the better through his calm and gracious tenacity. The son of the minister, George moved with a kind of sacred calling, one that made him a teacher and mentor to generations of documentary filmmakers and thinkers.  He taught his Documentary Traditions course at New York University up until last year and it will always be my deep regret that I never attended at least one of those classes. Three years ago George and I talked about his career at a program in conjunction with his papers and films becoming a part of the the Southern Historical Collection at UNC.  I described him as a “happy collaborator” who could always see the value in a balance between reflective documentary art and activism.  “If we don’t deal with the reality around us,” he said that night, “we just don’t make the day. Documentaries can help us improve our quality of life.”

George’s documentaries, over fifty of them to be conservative, certainly improve the qualities of our perspective and life.  And his essential 1953 film All My Babies about the midwife Mary Coley was selected in 2002 by the for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” There is so much about George Stoney’s work and life that “made the day,” that is deeply significant, and will continue to do the work of documentary long after his leaving us. The hardest thing to accept, of course, is that we simply don’t have George to walk along with us, to share with us what needs to be done, to continue his indefatigable guiding influence.

A selection of Stoney’s images made in Childersburg, Alabama, during the Depression, now archived in the Library of Congress.


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