In Remembrance of Willis "Buzz" Hartshorn: A Visionary Leader and Advocate for the International Center of Photography

Image © Jonas Cuénin
Jul 03, 2024
Image © Jonas Cuénin

Willis E. "Buzz" Hartshorn, the former director of the International Center of Photography (ICP), died on Saturday, June 29, 2024, after living with Parkinson's Disease for the past twenty years.  

Buzz was a visionary leader whose dedication and passion for the photographic arts resulted in extraordinary growth in ICP's audience, enrollment, and financial stability. His tenure at ICP spanned over 30 years, the last 18 years as Director.  It was marked by innovative exhibitions and educational programs that expanded the understanding and appreciation of photography.   

Buzz began his journey with ICP as an intern, shortly after its founding 50 years ago by Cornell Capa.  Capa established the philosophy of “concerned photography” which advocated for the power of photography to effect social change.  He believed pictures could educate, not just record.   

In many ways, Buzz was the unlikely successor to Cornell, and won the post after an international search. Capa was a larger-than-life founder, making it a challenge for any successor to assume the position. For Buzz, it was with his kind and friendly demeanor, and his many years of experience at ICP, that tipped the scales in his favor. He also had the support of those who worked with him, including Pat Schoenfeld, who today is ICP’s longest serving Board member.  It helped that Buzz had a deep respect for Cornell and shared his institutional vision.  

Buzz’s ground-breaking exhibitions for young contemporary photographers and world-renowned masters alike were perfectly suited for his role as Director.  Among the exhibitions he curated were MAN RAY/Bazaar Years, Annie Leibovitz: Photographs 1970-1990, and Brian Weil: The AIDS Photographs.  His full-time career at ICP began in 1982 working in the exhibitions program then headed by Bill Ewing.  When Ewing left ICP in 1984, Buzz assumed leadership of the program.  He commented “… it wasn’t just a matter of showing photography but also doing scholarly work, and giving ideas the time and attention and energy they needed.” 

Under Buzz’s leadership, ICP launched a planning project and capital campaign that resulted in moving ICP from its founding location on East 94th Street to two separate but adjacent much larger facilities at 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue. There, Buzz and ICP created a new museum with 40% more space, a new state-of-the-art school, established an MFA program, and provided the collection and library with museum-quality facilities and staff.  The exhibition department grew threefold, and a new publications program ensured that the world-class exhibitions had catalogues of equal stature.  Every division of the institution blossomed and was professionalized to the highest standards. ICP location today at 79 Essex Street in the Lower East Side achieved Buzz’s vision of reuniting the school and the museum in the same location. 

“Buzz Hartshorn’s leadership of ICP enhanced Cornell’s legacy and added to what ICP represents today in the education, exhibition and curation of concerned photography, which remains at the core of ICP’s mission”, said Caryl Englander, Chair of the Board of ICP and Jeffrey A. Rosen, ICP Board President. “Generations of talented photographers who came through our educational programs and of those who have learned from our exhibitions and collections are indebted to his contributions.” 

In a retirement interview for The New Yorker Buzz said: “The fact that I’ve helped a lot of photographers makes me feel that I was doing something for other people. I have to say, after thirty years at the organization and eighteen years as the director, I’m a lucky guy.” 

After his retirement from ICP in 2012, Buzz resumed a focus on his own photography. 

In 2015, he exhibited the work at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Titled “A Fine Life,” the exhibition was a reflection on his slower pace, as he was managing life with Parkinson’s. The photographs remind us of his delight in picture-making and exemplify his keen observation, gentle wit, and open embrace of the world around him.  His belief in the importance of nurturing talent was a driving force behind many of ICP's initiatives and given his long tenure, can be credited for the feeling of family at ICP today. 

We remember Buzz for his professional accomplishments and for his warmth, kindness, and generosity.  His ability to connect with people and his genuine enthusiasm for their stories and images made him a beloved figure to all who knew him. 

Buzz touched so many of us. A fine life, indeed. Our condolences go out to Buzz’s family, wife Patty and daughter Anne, and to all who loved Buzz.      

A memorial service in New York City will be announced. Contributions in Buzz’s memory may be made to ICP in honor of Buzz Hartshorn.