Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: George Stoney.
Despite his extensive filmography, George Stoney is remembered as more than just a filmmaker. He was also an educator, having spent his career teaching at American universities, and a pioneer, credited as the father of public television. He believed that the video format should serve as a tool for social change, and he put this idea into practice both as artist and activist. Stoney created the concept of “Public-acess Television” as part of his advocacy for the right of all people to showcase their own shows, something that has become a reality in the 21st century with the advent of YouTube and similar sites. Having passed away earlier this month, Stoney has left behind a world more attune to the video format, and one that churns out more video than anyone could have ever imagined.
Stoney once said, “Collaborative work is essential to making documentaries,” correcting an interviewer who stated that Stoney had done 50 films. “I made 50 films with other people,” he emphasized. “I’ve done this to associate myself with the particular subject,” he explained, referring to films like The Cry for Help (1963), covering various suicide situations; and All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story (1952), a particularly moving account of the midwife profession. Among the interviewed is Mary Frances Hill Coley, a woman who helped in the delivery of more than three thousand babies. In 2001, All My Babies entered the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for its “cultural, historical, and aesthetic” significance.
Even before his audiovisual career, Stoney showed his commitment to social causes. In the 1940s, he worked as a research assistant in human rights groups in the American South. Thirty years later, his experience there would be essential in his efforts to ensure the right to access. "We look on cable as a way of encouraging public action, not just access. Social change comes with a combination of use of media and people getting out on the streets or getting involved. And we find that if people make programs together and put them on the local channel, that gets them involved,” said Stoney, defending public access television. Founded in 1971 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the system was divided into three groups: public, educational, and governmental—all under the acronym PEG. TV stations with a minimal structure for production were spread across the states. Since then, the digital age has made the realization of independent programs even more affordable and easy.
Stoney was also involved in a collaborative project to give a voice to those who are never heard, the Challenge for Change. Created by the National Film Board of Canada in 1967, it started from the idea that film and video could be very useful to promote changes in society.
All those who had the chance to attend Professor George Stoney’s lectures and workshops describe the teacher fondly and as an emblem of generosity. He taught at the University of Southern California, City College, Columbia University, Stanford University and New York University. At NYU, he helped found the Center for Alternative Media.
A member of several associations related to multimedia, Stoney lends his name to the Alliance for Community Media’s (ACM) annual prize, “The George Stoney Award.” honors a person or organization that has contributed “exceptionally for the humanistic growth of community communications.” Following a fruitful career in film, television, and public advocacy, George Stoney passed away on July 12th of this year at the age of 96 in his apartment in the Village, New York.