George Tice has been photographing for over forty years. Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1938, he joined the Carteret Camera Club at age fourteen. At sixteen he left high school to work as a darkroom assistant for a Newark portrait studio. A year later he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving as a photographer’s mate, after which he worked as a home portrait photographer for ten years. When Tice’s interest shifted from professional to personal work, he turned his lens on the American urban landscape.
Steichen was one of the first to recognize Tice’s talents, acquiring for the Museum of Modern Art an image of an explosion aboard the USS Wasp. Long considered a virtuoso of the fine print, Tice has printed limited edition portfolios not only of his own work, but of the work of Francis Bruguiere, Fredrick H. Evans, Edward Steichen, and Edward Weston as well.
Exhibited internationally his work is represented in the collections of many institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Bibliotheque Nationale. He has received numerous fellowships and commissions including the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The extended photographic essay is an important dimension of Tice’s work, who has had eleven books published to date. Stone walls, Grey Skies, A Vision of Yorkshire (1993), his most recent published book, is the result of his stay in England as the recipient of the “Bradford fellowship.” His book Fields of Peace, A Pennsylvania German Album is soon to be reissued with over forty unpublished images. He is currently working on Ticetown, a project that traces the history and genealogy of his Dutch ancestors through his native land New Jersey. Recently he has resumed his effort to chronicle the urban landscape of New Jersey with renewed interest.
This conversation was first seen in the July/August, 1996 issue of View Camera magazine.
John Paul Caponigro How would you characterize your work?
George Tice I’d say I have the sensibilities of an artist but work in the documentary style as defined by Walker Evans. He didn’t just make documents but they were in the documentary style, what was known as straight photography. Documenting the place is principally what I do. The bulk of my photographs are of New Jersey. It may have been a subject series, like ice or aquatic plants, that could have been anywhere, but it was done in New Jersey. Most of my pictures are about place. I would say the Urban Landscape work is what is most distinctive about me.
JPC Andrew Wyeth advised artists to “Pick a place and go deep.”And it seems you’ve followed a similar philosophy. Is this part of the reason for your regional focus?
GT Well, whenever I photograph I just go out and if I don’t go too far I’m here. Whereas I used to know people who would only photograph when they took a European trip.
JPC Photography is a tool of exploration for a great number of people. Most interesting is what becomes the focus of each person’s attention.
GT Well there’s nice neat little boundaries here. New Jersey’s almost an island. You come down the Hudson River, around the bay to the Atlantic Ocean, and all the way up the Delaware River so it has a Florida kind of shape. It’s only at the top of the state, across the New York New Jersey border, where there are no natural features there to separate it. Most states are not like that. Most states are patchwork cut out of the country.
JPC What was it that attracted you to photography? Of all the things you could have done you chose photography. And what is it that continues to excite you about it?
GT I became interested because of my father’s photograph albums. He could show with 12 albums his whole life, from the time he was born until his death. I thought that was an incredible thing. Think of sustaining something for forty and some odd years. This is my 43rd year. And it still is exciting to go out and take what you think might be a great photograph. It still brings me the same pleasures that it always did.
JPC I was trying to ask what in particular about it
GT My taking pictures means I’m taking a series of pictures which become an essay and then get extended into a book. That’s what’s exciting, to take an idea and work it through to completion. This was just a blank book and now you’ve filled it up with pictures.
JPC A record of your life experience.
GT Of what you saw, what you witnessed, where you’ve been, when you were there.
JPC A roadmap of a life.
GT Yeah. It’s a great aid to memory too. With these pictures my memory is much better thinking back. Because I can think I took the Oak Tree in 1970, I started photographing in Maine in 1970. So it’s easier to think about the past.
JPC You had said, “After a time you don’t want to have any photographic influences. It’s okay to be influenced by writers, poets, people in other fields but not okay by other photographers.”
GT You don’t want to be like anyone else. Like all those people who were influenced by Ansel Adams. I don’t think any of them will do better than he did.
JPC Not until they find their own voice. It’s impossible to successfully imitate someone else’s voice.
GT Right. And the natural landscape of the west, that’s not going to be better in the future, as the population increases and much of the wilderness gets erased. Timothy O’Sullivan probably had a better chance at it than Ansel Adams did. But you don’t want anyone to be too great an influence, like an apprenticeship. If I was to begin photography, study it, I wouldn’t want one teacher. I think one teacher is too great an influence. I’d rather have an education based on workshops. You draw some knowledge through every one of them. But if you learn to see what photography is through one person’s eyes you become fixed in that one way of seeing.
JPC It’s always a matter of placing influence in the proper personal context. Who are the writers and poets you would find inspiring or influential?
GT Doing the Stone Walls, Grey Skies book, the Bronte’s. I used their writings as selections. You could say that Haworth, their hometown, was Bronte country. A great deal of the photography I did was on the Haworth moors. So they were a great influence. When I came to the north of England I didn’t know anything about it but yet that old black and white film Wuthering Heights colored my vision of what it was. And it was very much like that. J B Priestley was another influence. He did a book going around England in the 20’s and 30’s called English Journey.
JPC You found these things in the field?
GT I was doing my research of the area.
JPC It’s an interesting process photography; going into a new place, wanting to discover it and simultaneously your own vision of it and yet also collecting these influences both from the artistic tradition that you are practicing and from history.
GT Yes. Now I’m doing the Ticetown project. It started out as geneology and then I brought photography into it. So I got into early American history. I’d find my ancestors in the past. Five of them in the Revolutionary War, two others were Loyalists. It was the same with Ben Franklin who was a patriot but his first born son, the first governor in New Jersey, was a Loyalist.
JPC So Ticetown is a discovery of your past history and placing it in a larger context.
GT Yes. When I look at my great great grandfather born in 1809, a boatman on Cheesequake Creek, I can envision him as a contemporary of Darwin and Lincoln, both of whom were born on the same day February 12, 1809. I began my genealogical research after finishing Stone Walls, Grey Skies in 1992. I only knew as far back as my great grandfather. The belief was that my grandfather was born in Germany. But as I kept going back generation after generation, the Tices have been here since 1663, when the first progenitor arrived in New Amsterdam from Liege and settled in Brooklyn. The first native born of the next generation buys 750 acres of land in Monmouth County, New Jersey in 1709. That was a real surprise to see how American I am and how long my ancestors have been in the same spot which is within fifteen miles of where I live today.
JPC This is something you just picked up? After photographing forty three years in this area you just started this five years ago?
GT I try to take my interests and make them my work. When my interest was in Lincoln I got this idea that I’d take up my camera and look for Lincoln. It took a partnership of my interest and photography to make that a book. So I thought I could take my genealogical research combine it with history and photography and make it into something. At least an album but hopefully if it is of interest to others besides somebody named Tice then perhaps we can consider it as a book.
JPC It’s interesting that the work is genealogical in nature and yet the photographs I see aren’t of people.
GT That’s the most interesting part of it. I’m photographing Jacob S. Tice house, built in 1850, where the woods are now reclaiming the land. Besides that I’m photographing Newark, where I was born and my father was born. I’m photographing Rahway, where my grandfather was born and where my great grandfather settled in the 1873. Before that it goes back to Ticetown. I have photographs of the people that grew up in the house, which some of the descendants gave me.
So a lot of it is doing copy photographs of the descendants and some of the present day descendants I’ve also photographed. It’s really complex and dense. It’s family history. It also means my photographing in Brooklyn, looking for the old the Dutch farms. There’s maybe fifteen of them left. You wouldn’t think so. That’s a hard place to work in. It’s the land of double parking.
I’ve started to put together a dummy book, but it’s in no way ready. I haven’t written anything yet. The texts are drawn from a variety of sources. One great source has been Dorcas Tice’s attic. I have the woman’s poems and pictures of her son who died at age twelve. I take something like that, copy it and it becomes something else.
JPC Are they more interesting in a ruined state?
GT Definitely. I have small ambitions right now, but maybe I’ll do a book. But I’m approaching it as if it’s a book project. A long term one, because to do genealogical research is very time consuming. I gave it almost full time for two years, doing photography part time. The best source is the New Jersey State Archives, that’s where all the original documents go. So I can go there and request something and they’ll come out with the will of my great great great great great grandfather, on parchment with the big red seal and there’s his signature. To hold a piece of paper that your great great great great great grandfather held in his hand, signed touched, here’s his fingerprints. Tracing the Tice family tree was a big thing in itself. The name Tice comes from Matthais. Ty is short for Matthais. With the Dutch system of patronymics the son takes the fathers first name becoming Tyson. It became a permanent surname with William Tyson which became Tice. Compiling this ancestor chart was a great feat to do. When I told my brother I was going to do this he said you’ll never be able to, it will take a professional years.
JPC It’s interesting to see you come full circle. You said you became interested in photography by way of a family album, later became a fine art photographer and now you’re back to genealogy producing an unusual family album.
GT Part of it is a family album. I’ve got pictures of twelve of my ancestors. If you want to put your life into geneology you can. When you go back five generations you end up with like a thousand names. So people who do this research usually do it at the end of their life. They go off in all different directions. I just did the Tice line to stay on course.
JPC This is one of the dominant ways photography is used and probably always will be used, as records of who we are and where we’ve been. Strange but you don’t often expect this to be the focus of a fine artist’s work. I don’t know why that should be.
Do you know any photographers who aren’t collectors? Not photography collectors. I’m referring to your images of James Dean, books, family items, small items. We’ve been talking about assembling influence and digging through layers to find things, little mnemonic triggers which will remind you of your past, just as a photograph will.
GT Yeah I’ve gone back to Cheesequake and dug up early American pottery shards, all before 1815. This stoneware is in one piece, made by Warne and Letts 1805-1810. And see these hand carved pegs, they came from a closet in the Jacob S. Tice house.
JPC So this is stoneware your family would use.
GT Yes. And this is called furniture. Little odd bits of clay they would put in the kiln and these are their fingerprints embedded there.
JPC My father often says, “When you take a photograph you always leave your fingerprint on it.” Not literally, in other words we always leave our marks, we can’t escape ourselves.
GT “Man’s greatest need is the need for immortality. To leave a thumbprint somewhere on the world…” that’s what Arthur Miller said.
JPC So much of your work seems to be about a single place. Your place, your family place, the place you grew up. And then once in awhile you’ve got a few other photographic sojourns to another place. Does going away to another place lend perspective to the place you’re always coming back to?
GT Definitely. When you go off to new territory that’s great. Just imagine, I’ve been looking at these same scenes for thirty years. Driving down Route 1 considering photographing this gas station or that diner. Most of the time I’m driving down the road and I’m looking at my own pictures. I’ve already photographed this. There isn’t a lot for me to do because I’m not going to duplicate the thing. I’m not going to photograph it again like a then and now to show the changes. That I think is a more interesting project for somebody else to do.
JPC Did you see the movie Smoke ? Harvey Keitel plays this cigar store owner who photographs the same street corner every morning at the same time year after year. A very different approach.
GT I think those photographic surveys with O’Sullivan and then somebody else comes along a hundred years later redoing a photographic survey and they’ve done the same scene except now there’s a highway running through it. So I think that’s an interesting project for somebody else to do, and someone has already done that.
JPC Why doesn’t it attract you?
GT Well it’s never as good the second time. Things don’t get better. You can’t always go back, a lot of it has been erased. The photograph is a record of it having existed. One of the things I like about the photographs I do is that they will represent after the time is past the history of this area. History books are illustrated with paintings, maps, photographs. That gives it a life of its own.
JPC That document value seems to be one of the dominant things that separates a photograph from any other kind of object.
GT And I think they become more. The thing itself photographed becomes less interesting when you go back to it years later but I think the photograph becomes more important later when the reality has passed. What was once very commonplace looking in 1920 we now see differently. It all becomes a bit more exotic.
JPC Funny that history is exotic and the present not so.
GT Well I grew up in the 50’s and if I knew what the 50’s were at the time I would have taken more pictures. But you only know what the 50’s were afterwards.
JPC And the 50’s will probably be a different time in thirty or forty years too.
GT Right because that generation will be gone too. And who talks about the 1870’s?
JPC You’re continuing your preoccupation with the urban landscape.
GT Actually it’s my occupation. I resumed Urban Landscapes in 1994 with a big push. I think New Jersey is rapidly changing; the landscape, its density, in the last ten years there’s 15,000 more cars on the road. It went through a big boom period of expansion, building office buildings and malls. The malls have killed many of the small towns. The main street is dying. Some are thriving but many are just getting by. There’s less and less of the local, there’s more of the big chains. Sometimes while travelling I can wake up in Connecticut and think I’m in New Jersey. It’s all becoming very homogenous. My response to this is I’m not going to photograph that, that’s California. California is getting here. So I photograph what is essentially, characteristically New Jersey.
I don’t think there’s any great difference in the work that I’m doing today than in the urban landscapes that I did a long time ago. The only difference as I see it is I have all these categories; shops, views, interiors, and now I’m introducing another – the detail. The way I find the detail often is just looking through my own pictures and finding what’s in there that I could photograph.