WNY Life / Joe George and Pete Nasvytis
Their pictures tell stories
Nasvytis (left) and George met on Facebook and then in person.
photo by kc kratt; Additional photos courtesy of Pete Nasvytis and Joe George
As thoughtful chroniclers, Joe George and Pete Nasvytis share their distinctive styles of documentary commentary almost daily on social media. Every post tells a tale of someone they encountered wandering the neighborhoods of Buffalo.
Like other frequent posters, Nasvytis and George have attracted tribes of faithful followers who check in often with comments and conversations, and build virtual communities in days of distancing. Nasvytis has been sharing his photos and stories on Facebook since April 2019. George has been sharing his (as well as recipes and quotes) on his personal blog, Urban Simplicity, since 2008, on Facebook since 2009, and on Instagram since 2012. While neither are new to photography, each has stepped into a new place, thanks to social media. Their daily posts are always visually striking, and personal details about their subjects lend intimacy to the stories.
Creating compelling imagery has long been Nasvytis’s life work. In the eighties, he worked at Buffalo’s prestigious Myers Studio, where he shot sports figures (OJ Simpson and Jim Kelly are both in his portfolio), executives, models, and celebrities. Later, he spent a decade working at Fisher-Price. “I used to do that really well,” he says. “Now, I want more, and I don’t want anything staged. Now, I want to get in closer.” To achieve that, he’s taken to developing his own style, never aiming the camera at faces but holding his Nikon or Canon at heart level and shooting with an 8mm fisheye lens to capture broad, wide images that he fine-tunes later. This process elicits details, drawing attention to his subject’s eyes, and including the lines, light, and colors of the plants and puddles in the outdoor café/studio he built this past spring while sheltering in place.
Jerome Holloway by Pete Nasvytis
People in Nasvytis’s posts typically live or work in his Summer Street/Linwood Avenue neighborhood, and everyone is given a catchy moniker, like New Kid on the Block (Agnes, ninety), Dame Judy, Demolition Man, and Milk Carton Portraiture. We get to know some of his regulars; the famous brothers AJ and Hakeem with dad Antonio; Anita, who drops by with a rose; and Jerome, who lives in VA subsidized apartments.
AJ and Hakeem Brooks by Pete Nasvytis
Sometimes people see Nasvytis’s photos and ask to meet him so that he’ll take their picture and tell their story. Joe Giambra—jazz trumpeter, singer, composer, lyricist, band leader, chef, author, playwright, and Buffalo Police detective—got to know Nasvytis a couple of months before his death in April from COVID-19, and posed for what would become the final images of a beloved Buffalo hero.
Staying close to home and creating an outdoor photo studio has changed how he takes pictures, says Nasvytis. He invites neighbors and friends for lunch, dancing in and out of his house with chilled soups and salads, working the grill, refreshing drinks, and never breaking speed on the telling of a story. It’s all part of the set-up to catch a soulful expression in a socially distanced photo shoot that his subjects don’t see coming. “If you’re in a photo studio and I’m doing my thing, pointing a camera directly at your face, saying, look at me, boom, boom, boom,” he says, “your eyes are getting bombarded and they won’t look like they should. People feel good in this space. The lighting in here is unique. It doesn’t hit your face hard, so your eyes stay totally relaxed.”
A South Sudan refugee by Pete Nasvytis
For Joe George, who sold his a car in 2012 so that he could travel to Paris with his son for two weeks, posting his View from My Handlebars images is a means to sharing his mission. A career chef and currently a cook in a residential facility in Buffalo, George was ordained as an Interfaith Minister in 2014 and recently returned to school, graduating Magna Cum Laude from SUNY Empire State with a degree in Philosophical and Religious Studies. “I could never have done that when I was younger,” he grins.
For George, storytelling is a continuation of his seminary work and an outcome of growing up with parents who modeled a strong work ethic, raising a family of four in a housing project on Buffalo’s East Side. George remembers seeing a homeless man covered in cardboard and blankets under an overpass wall that was spray painted, “Smile, God Loves You!” and recalls an immediate sense of wanting to help those disadvantaged by circumstances.
George’s photos and stories most often feature people on the streets of his Allentown neighborhood who are asking for money, trying to buy their next meal. A recent story and photo on Facebook shared his impressions of the young man he met:
He is originally from one of Buffalo’s wealthiest suburbs—one with gated communities—but he literally sleeps on the street. Like most on the street I’ve spoken with, a shelter is a last resort because they are so unsafe. Instead, he sleeps sitting up against a building. After a few minutes of chatting, he was less guarded and I less nervous; just two guys talking. But now I am home typing these words and he is likely sitting leaning against a building trying to sleep with everything he owns beside him. I won’t tell his complete story but will say that all of us are in this together. He is on the street and I am typing this in my living room with two pugs next to me and you are likely reading this in the comfort of your own home on your computer or tablet or phone, and maybe even snuggled under covers in your air-conditioned bedroom. But in many regards, we are not that different. All of us are doing what we need to in order to make it in this life. People on the street are there for so many reasons, and we shouldn’t judge. Tonight I heard Brian’s story and my life is better because of him.
Buffalo street scene by Joe George
“Sometimes I forget that not everybody lives in the city and sees what I see,” says George, who travels exclusively on his bicycle. “I want to tell the story of a man living on the street, maybe with a scar on his face, maybe who just got out of jail and is asking for money. I want to tell his story because there’s a reason why he’s where he is now, opposed to what a lot of people may judge. People will comment that I take them to places they would never normally be. I find that interesting.”
When George started telling stories and taking photos, he would often try to give a few dollars when asked, admitting in his posts that he really didn’t have much to spare. “About a year ago, a minister at my church sent me ten $5 McDonald’s gift cards to give away, out of the blue! I wrote about his generosity and others started private messaging me and asking if they could send gift cards as well. I’ve had more than ten people send me cards recently, and I continue to get offers. You wouldn’t believe the stack I have at home, to give away. People are moved by these stories and they want to help.”
Chippewa at night by Joe George
Bringing attention to people on the street has always been important to George, more so now. “In many ways, it’s a spiritual thing and I feel called to do it,” he says. “I wouldn’t have said that two years ago, but I do now. This time has given us a forced opportunity to see how precarious life can be. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how healthy you are. You could be struck with this illness [COVID-19] or lose your job and watch your 401K get sucked dry. Not everybody has been dealt a good deck. Not everybody grew up with an opportunity to go to a good school and make a good living. The best gift to these people is making them not invisible.”
Joe George is well known for his downtown Buffalo street scenes.
Likening his vision to a Mobius strip, George strives to improve his life and the lives of others by sharing his stories, photos, and reflections. “I think of life like that design,” he says. “If you cut a ribbon and glue it back together so that the outside is the inside and inside is the outside, that’s how I’d want life to be. Whether I’m being too idealistic, I don’t know. I think it makes life easier. It’s nicer when it is easier.”
For Nasvytis, there’s pure joy in the epiphanies he continues to experience as he explores new ways to capture eyes and souls and share details about people in the city. “I’m doing this at seventy-two—can you believe that?” he marvels. “All those years, I was producing award-winning photography and making good money taking pictures of people in unnatural poses. I did nothing then that can touch what I’m doing now.”
In a time when it’s hard to make new friends, Nasvytis and George are bringing people together. Their images, so intentional, and their observations and insights, so thoughtful, are like meditation. They help us slow down, take a closer look, share a pulse and breathe together. They continue to tell us so much about our city and the people who live here.