Life Story

Artist Gene Thornton lived quiet life in Chapel Hill

CORRESPONDENTFebruary 27, 2012 

  • Born: May 7, 1924

    1970: Became photo critic for The New York Times.

    1986: Moved to Chapel Hill.

    Died: Jan. 10, 2012

In the 1970s, as photography gained notice as an art form as well as a means of documentation, Gene Thornton shared a position as the first photo critic for The New York Times.

He held this position into the 1980s, a few years after which he retired and moved to Chapel Hill. Friends say he was looking for a slow Southern town. He had grown up in Atlanta and then Greensboro and was ready to leave big cities behind.

For the next 25 years Thornton resided in Chapel Hill. As a trained artist, he occasionally created paintings, often cartoonlike oils, which he would sell at local galleries. He had a few friends, mostly other artists, and led a simple, quiet life. He eschewed much modern technology, never owning a personal computer or a cellphone.

Thornton died last month at the age of 87. In the last few years his dementia grew increasingly disabling, and in the end he died from complications of a stroke.

He never married and had no children, but the few close friends he maintained remember him as a kind, honest gentleman.

And they recall that he knew what he was talking about when it came to art. If Thornton chose to share his opinion on anything, they said, his comments were always well-informed and sincere.

Not much is known about Thornton's early life. His mother's family was well-do-to and from Atlanta, and he had one sister who passed away years ago in California, said his longtime friend, roommate and eventual caregiver, Tony DeFilipps.

The two met more than 30 years ago when Thornton was in need of someone to sublet his apartment in New York City. The two ended up roommates, first in New York, then in Chapel Hill, when Thornton invited DeFilipps to live with him once again when he was getting on in years.

New York career

Thornton graduated from St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., and also served briefly in the U.S. Navy, sailing on the first ship that landed at Nagasaki after the atomic bomb fell, DeFilipps said. He then attended Columbia University for graduate school and also studied at the Art Students League of New York before beginning a career as a writer and critic.

Prior to being hired at The New York Times, Thornton was art critic for Time Magazine, DeFilipps said. Afterward he was approached by Newsday but chose retirement, moving to Chapel Hill in 1986. (The News & Observer approached him as well upon his arrival, but he declined, DeFilipps said.)

In New York, Thornton shared the first position of photo critic at The New York Times with A.D. Coleman. The two alternated weekly columns, occasionally touching base on who was covering which gallery event or opening. In addition to writing critiques of photos from an artistic perspective, they brought attention to many minority photographers who might not have received recognition.

Thornton once wrote that magazine photography was the mural painting of modern times, and he took his work seriously. He penned essays and edited collections on art, and in 1976 wrote a book, "Masters of the Camera: Stieglitz, Steichen & their Successors."

As a critic, Thornton favored the traditional and the classic. He appreciated the Greeks and Romans, his friends say, and he loved Renaissance art.

"He was soft-spoken; he was not particularly given to picking fights as a critic," Coleman said.

"In the past, people were much easier with their language and their writing," said Stephen White, a Pittsboro artist who had a weekly dinner date with Thornton for the last 25 years.

Retired to Chapel Hill

After a career of critiquing photography and art for the world's most prominent publications, Thornton decided he would retire and move south, closer to his roots. Despite his years in New York, Thornton never lost his Southern accent, White said.

DeFilipps said Thornton's work expressed a great appreciation for others, but his own contributions to the New York arts scene tended to be overlooked. "He never got the recognition he should have gotten," DeFilipps said, though he noted that Thornton never said he felt slighted.

With his quiet manner, Thornton didn't seem like a New Yorker, DeFilipps said; he was too gentlemanly for his own good, perhaps.

"Among liberals he was a conservative; among conservatives he was a liberal," DeFilipps said.

DeFilipps thinks Thornton might have chosen Chapel Hill partly because his sister had studied at UNC-Chapel Hill and he had fond memories of the town. Once he moved here, his life became very simple. No computer, lots of books, and the company of a few friends.

"He was always pretty much on his own," White said. "It's not that he was a recluse. He was just quiet."

And though he never would have said it himself, he had an impact on photography. Coleman said he has walked into prestigious art classrooms and seen clippings of their columns tacked to the walls.

"He did matter. He mattered to photography," Coleman said. And to those who truly knew him.

"He was one of the nice people," White said. "I knew him for all those years and I never heard him complain once."

"The one thing I always remember about Gene is the fact that I never, in 33 years that I knew him, I never heard him say anything unkind about anybody," DeFilipps said.

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