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-mil-
limeter 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 pho-
tographer.’ 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 over-
board. 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 col-
lection. 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,
Yellow Cab, Wood Avenue, Linden, NJ, 1983
Anderson Hotel and Tavern, Route 57, Anderson, NJ, 1998
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. ■