Under The Hood: Photographer George Tice

After decades of ducking beneath the cape of his old-fashioned view camera, George Tice, one of the great photographers of our time, reveals more masterworks in Seldom Seen.

George Tice was showing writer Levin his equipment when the 76-year-old’s playful side broke loose and Levin snapped this portrait.
Photo by Eric Levin

Unless you follow art photography, you may not recognize the name George Tice. But if you’ve seen the live musical Jersey Boys, you’ve seen his work. The show licensed five of his black-and-white images of urban New Jersey—including railyards, a ferry slip in Jersey City and the Pulaski Skyway—as projections or scenic backdrops.

His earnings from Jersey Boys since it opened in 2005 run well into six figures, not just from the Broadway show, but, in a lovely turnabout for a boy who grew up ever on the move, from the touring productions as well.

Long before Jersey Boys—in fact, since his 1970 solo show at the Witkin Gallery in New York enabled him to quit his job as a home portrait photographer—Tice has made his living solely from his art. Prints of his most famous pictures, like the night shots of a gleaming White Castle on Route 1 in Rahway (1973) or the ghostly water tower behind Petit’s Mobil station in Cherry Hill (1974), start at $5,000 each and go for as much as $45,000 for large platinum prints. The point being that when Tice creates a book—and he sees the book as the fundamental unit of his art—he doesn’t do it for the money.

Which brings us to his 18th and most unusual volume, Seldom Seen. Exquisitely printed on heavy stock, it contains 100 pictures not published in any of the previous 17. Half a dozen were shown at the Danziger Gallery in New York in 2000 to accompany an exhibit by the influential photographer and curator Edward Steichen, who in the last year of his life had chosen Tice to be his personal printmaker. The 15 pictures from 2008 to 2011 were shot with Seldom Seen in mind or for the documentary George Tice: Seeing Beyond the Moment, released in 2013 and now on DVD from georgeticefilm.com.

Nonetheless, Seldom Seen (Brilliant Press, $64) largely consists of pictures that might crassly be called outtakes—rejects. Why didn’t they make the cut the first time around?

“Sometimes,” Tice responds, “I’ll get more than one good picture of a subject. I can only use one of them in a given book. Now it’s 30 years later. You see things differently. It may be more important today. I photographed the telephone booth. What happened to all the telephone booths? What happened to all the television antennas? You see things pass in time.”

Far from being second-rate, the pictures in Seldom Seen reconfirm Tice’s twin virtuosities: first, his mastery of the medium’s most deliberative machine, the 8-by-10 view camera, and the finicky optics and (potentially toxic) darkroom chemistry that digital cameras and editing software have sent to the scrap heap; second, his certainty of sight.

The two reinforce each other. You can’t reel off shots with a view camera. Each 8-by-10-inch sheet of film costs $7.50 and makes one picture. In the darkroom, before setting out to shoot, Tice loads two sheets of film back-to-back in a holder. On site, he pushes the holder into the camera, removes the lightproof cover from one sheet and takes the picture. Before doing that, he ducks under the cloth and composes the image, which he sees projected dimly and upside down.

“You see in a more abstract manner upside down, but you learn to see as good upside down as right side up,” Tice says. “You get fussy. This is a little close to the edge of the frame, so you trim the bellows or move the tripod a little.”

Tice’s books are largely about place: New Jersey, especially Paterson, but also Yorkshire, England; the Maine seacoast; the hometowns of Ronald Reagan, Mark Twain and James Dean. When he is working on a book, he drives around for hours at a time. “You see my head turning a lot, my car slowing down,” he says. In the trunk of his car are his heavy wooden tripod and, dismantled in its bulky black suitcase, his 1969 Deardorff view camera, made in Chicago of Honduran mahogany.

He may drive past something that interests him many times before he shoots. “I might say, ‘Well, I’ll do this at a different time of day, when the light is different, or at night, or in a different season.’ I remember driving around Paterson, seeing something, thinking, I’ve considered it several times. Now looks about the right time.

He likes to have someone ride shotgun. “When you set up an 8-by-10 camera, you immediately begin to draw a crowd,” he says. “The assistant will take people to the side and say, ‘I’ll answer all your questions about what he’s doing.’ I can concentrate. That’s a big help. Also, the assistant helps me carry and set up the equipment, and there’s safety in numbers.”

A view-camera exposure might last from a fraction of a second to a few seconds to a few minutes. Each sheet of film has to be developed separately. Then each negative must be contact printed before the photographer can see what he has. “I’m still a bit insecure until I develop that film and see that negative, that it isn’t blank,” Tice admits. Instagram, it’s not.

Though the process is complex, the reason Tice and a handful of like-minded artists still devote themselves to it is simple. An 8-by-10 negative has roughly 80 times the surface area of a 35-millimeter negative. No other camera can match the 8-by-10’s depth of detail and vast range of tones, from pure black to pure white. “All I’m looking for,” he says, “is one picture a day. And I’m happy. Sometimes I get two or three. That’s exceptional.”

Curiously, Tice was always an economical shooter. He has worked with every camera of his time, including the 35 millimeter that made fast shooting not only possible, but irresistible.

“I remember my first assignment for Life magazine,” he says. “In the early ’70s, they sent me to Iowa for a week. I came back with about seven rolls of 35-millimeter film [36 exposures to a roll]. This was unheard of. People would come back with a hundred rolls of exposed film. But I make them count.”

In 1663, about 40 years after the Pilgrims left England aboard the Mayflower, George Tice’s ancestors left what is now Belgium aboard the Rosetree. They settled in Brooklyn until 1709, when Peter Tyson, the first son born in the New World, bought 750 acres of land in Monmouth County. The spelling soon changed to Tice, but the family stayed put, making George Tice an 11th-generation American and a 10th-generation New Jerseyan.

Tice knew none of this growing up. Neither did his father, William Tice, who married Tice’s mother, Margaret, but never lived with her and died when Tice was 19. Born in Newark in 1938, Tice was raised by his mother, who was one of a far-flung breed of Celtic nomads who call themselves Travelers—like gypsies, but of different ethnicity. They lived in automobile-drawn trailers.

“We used to pull into a gas station sometimes,” Tice recalls, “and hook up to the electricity, and pay them $10 or something for the night to use the bathrooms.” In the introduction to his 1982 book, Urban Romantic, Tice wrote, “We moved north in the summer and south in the winter—home was wherever we camped….When we weren’t on the road, New Jersey was home.”

They lived in the projects in Newark or in trailer camps in Carteret, Rahway, Linden, Metuchen and elsewhere. “I went to about a dozen grammar schools,” Tice says. “Some just three weeks. We’d move into a town, my mother would take me in, say, ‘He’s in fifth grade. His transfer is in the mail.’ There was no transfer. You could put yourself in any grade you wanted. I didn’t go to kindergarten. Then when I went to first grade, I wondered how these kids knew all this stuff I didn’t know—ABCs, numbers. They had a real advantage.”

Now 76, Tice has an honorary doctorate from William Paterson University. His seminal black-and-white photographs of Paterson—where, as a boy, he sold crepe-paper roses door-to-door that he, his mother and his aunts made to bring in a few dollars—were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972, catapulting him to fame. Paterson, the book of that monumental show, won the Grand Prix du Festival d’Arles as the year’s best photography book. He won a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship that same year. In 1979, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned him to photograph the decaying Hudson River piers of Jersey City before they were transformed into Liberty State Park.

Tice spent much of the years from 1992 to 1998 burrowing into the genealogy of his father’s family. When he finished, “I felt like royalty,” he says. “I had a past.”

The two sides of Tice’s background—deeply American on his father’s side, perpetual outsider on his mother’s—combine to give his photos their placid power. On the one hand, he is drawn to what is fragile, marginal or simply overlooked in habitats natural as well as human. On the other hand, his unerring sense of composition and gift for understatement bespeak a visual confidence as sturdy, you might say, as Plymouth Rock.

Tall and lean, his hair still blond, Tice lives alone on 2½ wooded acres in Atlantic Highlands. One of his ex-wives and two of his grown daughters come by a couple of days a week to help him with his projects.
Tice has been smoking cigarettes for as long as he has been taking pictures, about 60 years. Sitting at his dining-room table, surrounded by four photos from Seldom Seen framed on the walls, he smokes as he speaks. He inhales slowly, taking moderate puffs, gently touching the ash to the lip of the ashtray. He speaks, smokes and moves with the same relaxed yet exacting finesse that has characterized his pictures since he bought his first 35-millimeter camera, a $29.95 Kodak Pony, at a Newark department store when he was 14. With a $10 Kodak developing kit he had already bought at a hobby shop in Highland Park, he was all set.

A year later, competing in the Carteret Camera Club against men armed with professional Leicas and Rolleiflexes, he took second place. He still has the trophy. His winning pictures included several taken on the Bowery. In one, men sit hunched on a stoop, heads bowed, faces unseen, a pietà of despair. Tice was 15.

The impetus to take up photography came from his father, whom Tice would visit from time to time. William Tice held various jobs: insurance adjuster, bus driver, butcher in the meat department of Bamberger’s. “I remember visiting him there,” Tice says, “and him slicing off a piece of baloney or something and giving it to me.” Tice describes his father as “an educated man.” William played the violin, and he took photos of his son and other family and pasted them into albums.

Tice briefly studied photography at a Newark technical-vocational high school. “When I was 16,” he relates, “I got a job as a darkroom assistant in a Newark portrait studio at the end of the summer. And I thought, Well, I’m not going back to school. I’ve had enough of that. I know what I want to do. I had a falling out with them after about three months and went to Kresge’s in Newark as a stock boy in curtains and draperies. Then I went to the Newark Evening News, was in charge of back copies. I did that until I turned 17. Then I joined the Navy.” (“I really liked the uniform,” he says in George Tice: Seeing Beyond the Moment.)

In boot camp, he says, “I get very high IQ results, but I’m not a high school graduate, so they won’t send me to photography school. They make me a messenger. We had a party for officers and enlisted men. Drinking beer, I got up a little courage, ran up to the officer in charge and told him, ‘I’m in the wrong outfit. I’m a photographer.’ I thought nothing would come of it. Next morning, I got orders to report to the naval air station photo lab for training.”

In 1959, Tice was at sea aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp when he heard an explosion. Grabbing his camera, he ran to the flight deck and took a photo of sailors down in the hangar bay hosing down burning helicopters and pushing them overboard. The photo, sent to wire services, made the front pages of newspapers around the country, including the New York Times.

Edward Steichen was then the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. “Steichen contacted the Navy,” Tice relates. “He said he’d like to have a print for the museum’s collection. I was 20 years old. I thought, I must be an artist.”

It took him more than a decade to begin earning his living solely as an artist. Married (for the second time) with children, he worked for years as a home portrait photographer for a studio in Irvington. Discouraged, he drove the family to California, where he discovered that home portraits paid only $1.50 each, compared to $3.25 in New Jersey. So after six dispiriting months, they piled into the car and drove back east.

In the late ’60s, Tice met Lee Witkin, an East Orange native who wrote for construction magazines but loved art. Tice encouraged Witkin’s interest in photography. In 1969, Witkin opened New York’s first art gallery devoted to photography. He showed Tice’s work, and Tice’s career took off. Ever since, Tice has been driving around, looking this way and that, lugging the big Deardorff. “It gets heavier every year as I age,” he says. He calls the camera “that ball and chain.” But it set him free.

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