George M. Hester, 98, gifted visual artist, animal lover, commercial illustrator, and fashion photographer whose ground-breaking book of photographs, “The Classic Nude” was published while the Supreme Court of the United States was struggling to define obscenity, and whose photograph of a nude human couple is aboard NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, died Jan. 15 in Wilton Manors where he had lived since 1990.
His death was announced by his companion of 47 years, Alfredo Pinheiro.
Hester was a World War II veteran of more than 55 flights as a B-29 gunner in the South Pacific, attached to the same squadron as those who flew the Enola Gay, another B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. His war experience made him an ardent and vocal pacifist.
George Martin Hester was born September 1, 1923, in Wildwood, New Jersey to Helen W. (Thompson) and Benjamin Franklin Hester. The family moved to Pittsburgh where George excelled at art. At age 12, he began weekly studies at the Carnegie Institute. Despite a scholarship to study art there, he instead enlisted in the army at age 16.
Returning from the war at age 20, he tried without success a career in civil aviation, but his short stature ended that. Later, he began to study at Parson’s School of Design in New York, but left before graduating. He told an interviewer 40 years ago that “I thought it ridiculous to be paying for drawing instruction when I could draw better than any of my instructors.”
In 1953, he went to Rome to pursue a singing career by studying Italian lyric opera with Beniamino Gigli. His money ran out before he completed his training. He returned to the United States and never sang another note. However, his love for opera lasted throughout his life; he was a long-time subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera and the Florida Grand Opera.
Hester was hired as an illustrator for the luxury New York department store Bonwit Teller & Co. While there he began his own photography studio, and over some two years in his upper westside Manhattan studio and laboratory, across the street from Lincoln Center, he photographed and printed a sufficient portfolio of nudes. With no experience in publishing, he went to Amphoto, the first publisher to whom he offered his work. Amphoto published “The Classic Nude” in 1971. Describing his work, Hester wrote: “I tried to bring to bear on the photographic medium my knowledge of painting and sculpture, and in that context to explore photographically the ideal and universal aspects of the human form.”
His first book was so successfully received that Hester produced a two-volume set called “Man / Woman” which was published in 1975. Carl Sagan, chair of NASA's committee to create the Golden Record — a sort of electronic time capsule to communicate with extraterrestrials a story of humans on Earth — invited Hester to include his image of a nude man and pregnant woman. However, buckling to outcries over a nude image on an earlier Pioneer spacecraft, NASA rendered Hester’s photograph in silhouette, yet engraved on the “Golden Record” aboard Voyager, now traveling in interstellar space, 15 billion miles from Earth.
Hester loved to joke, and when he got to the punchline, the twinkle in his eyes was a reminder of his childlike wonder with the world.
When he moved to South Florida, Hester continued his classical oil paintings and drawing until he began to lose his eyesight to macular degeneration over the past 20 years, which ultimately led to his blindness preventing further artistic endeavors. He endured experimental treatments involving dozens of painful injections at the Miami VA Hospital to restore his declining eyesight, but it was largely useless. A lifelong lover of animals, he donated generously to, and volunteered with pet rescue organizations, and adopted several animals, including his three-legged dog, “Tripod.”
Hester supported many local organizations, the Stonewall National Museum and Archives, in Fort Lauderdale, named a gallery wall in his honor. In lieu of flowers, Hester stated he would prefer donations in his name to Abandoned Pet Rescue, Fort Lauderdale.
Hester never married and other than Pinheiro, has no known survivors. Consistent with his request, no service is planned.