George Pickow, who has died aged 88, was a photographer and film-maker whose images were used on many album covers in the US – jazz, folk and pop – and who made a significant contribution to the film Festival (1967), which chronicled the Newport folk festival in its heyday. As the husband of the Kentucky-born folk singer Jean Ritchie, he was able to gain access to informal music-making, both in the Ritchie family home, and in Britain and Ireland during a visit made by Ritchie in the early 1950s.
Pickow was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in New York, where he studied art. During the second world war he made training films for the US navy. Although never a musician himself, he loved jazz and blues, and his first exposure to folk music was in the early 1940s, when he heard Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston at the leftwing Camp Unity in upstate New York.
At a square dance in 1948 he met Ritchie, who came from a large Kentucky family whose members had sung for the English folk collector Cecil Sharp in 1917, and again for the American folklorist Alan Lomax. With her large repertoire of Anglo-American balladry, Ritchie was lauded by the emerging American folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York.
Eager to discover the origins of her songs, Ritchie, accompanied by Pickow – they married in 1950 – spent more than a year in Britain and Ireland in 1952-53, funded by a Fulbright scholarship. Pickow worked with Lomax (based in Britain for much of the 50s) and the English folk collector Peter Kennedy to film a Cornish folk custom, the Padstow Obby Oss (hobby horse). The result, Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953), remains an important ethnographic record, excerpts from which were shown recently on the BBC television documentary Still Folk Dancing After All These Years. Pickow also filmed the Dartmoor folk singer Bill Westaway, whose family’s version of Widecombe Fair helped to popularise the song, and provided inspiration for Kennedy and others to film English folk singers and customs.
In Ireland, Pickow photographed singers and musicians visited by Ritchie, such as the uillean piper Séamus Ennis and the singer Sarah Makem, mother of Tommy, as well as Irish rural scenes. Pickow’s Irish photographs are deposited in the library of the National University of Ireland, Galway.
Back in the US, Pickow took photographs of jazz, pop and rock singers including Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Little Richard, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Jordan and Lena Horne, as well as the folk singers Pete Seeger, Josh White and Judy Collins, and many of his photographs graced their album covers. He also photographed visual artists such as Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton.
Pickow travelled to Mexico, Peru, the new state of Israel in 1948 and Turkey, as well as Europe, taking photographs. Whenever the opportunity arose, he photographed musicians, local celebrations and ordinary people at work. His photographs were published in Life magazine, National Geographic and Cosmopolitan, and he was the principal photographer, and later partner, of the Three Lions picture agency.
Pickow was associate producer and one of the cameramen for Murray Lerner’s film Festival, about the Newport folk festival between 1963 and 1966, when the commercial, political and ethnic aspects of the American folk revival came together at a single event. The film captures performers including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and Peter, Paul and Mary. Pickow’s camera work was also used in the 2007 film The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival. Pickow also filmed Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass (1961), directed by Lomax, featuring singers including Doc Watson and Jack Elliott.
Ritchie popularised the Appalachian dulcimer for folk song accompaniment, but as there were no manufacturers of the instrument, Pickow made a copy of Ritchie’s dulcimer and supervised a small-scale business that supplied the burgeoning folk market. He supplied the photographs for Ritchie’s songbooks, including The Swapping Song Book (1952) and Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1965), as well as for The Dulcimer Book (1963).
Pickow is survived by Ritchie and their sons, Jon and Peter.
• George Pickow, photographer and film-maker, born 11 February 1922; died 10 December 2010
Via The Guardian