Duncan bought two of the prints for $10 and showed them to colleagues. "They told me it was my best work," says Duncan, who is famed for his combat photographs and his studies of Picasso.
Excited by his find, Duncan returned to buy 50 more Forss photos and began promoting him all over New York. Soon Forss, 43, was a guest on the Today show and the subject of a BBC special. Now Forss' moody shots are collected in a book, New York/New York: Masterworks of a Street Peddler (McGraw-Hill, $19.95).
No one is more delighted with Forss' acclaim than his mother, Norma, 70, who made a sparse living in the late 1930s as an amateur photographer. Forss' father served prison time for armed robbery and was later deported to Sweden.
Inspired by his mother, Forss bought his first camera in 1964 to shoot the New York World's Fair. He then drifted through odd jobs before he began selling his pictures on the streets in 1975. In a good week he earned $150.
Having won praise and recognition, Forss has now traded street peddling for private work and is readying a show at the Brooklyn Museum. Forss supports his now arthritic mother, as well as a sister and brother, and lives with them in Brooklyn. He figures he will pull in $10,000 this year. "I think Duncan saved my neck," reflects Forss. "He moved me from nowhere to somewhere."
Sidewalk vendors whose goods range from pretzels to stolen gold chains are part of the everyday landscape in Manhattan. So there was little reason for celebrated photographer David Douglas Duncan, 68, to give a second glance one blustery November day in 1980 to the wares of a bearded peddler named George Forss. Yet propped against a building were 18 black-and-white photographs that Duncan couldn't ignore. "I was astonished," he recalls, immediately thinking they were the works of his noted friend Ansel Adams. "Because of the quality, I thought Forss had stolen the photos. Then I remembered that Adams never photographed New York."