Early mills and factories were built next to rivers or falls as these supplied the source of water used to create steam pressure to make the machines run. During the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton passed by the Great Falls of the Passaic in New Jersey and he never forgot their power and grandeur. He, however, was not a lover of impressive landscapes; he envisioned the powerful falls as the source of a model industrial city. A few years later, after he helped create the Society for Manufacturing Useful Manufactures (1791), he would start Paterson, New Jersey as a prototype industrial hub. Close to 200 years afterwards, George Tice would have the first solo photography show ever at the MET Museum based on the images of dereliction and malaise in Paterson, New Jersey - the falls still grand but now heavily polluted. He felt that the falls somehow symbolized Paterson itself.
George Tice is one of the most significant American photographers of the post-World War II era. One reason he is not well-known among the general public is that he did not try to hit the viewer of his photos over the head with moral judgments or admonitions, yet he revealed significant truths about American urban society in a subtle and novel way by seeing something significant in the common place which others missed. If you think of some of the most popular urban photographers before our contemporary era, you might think of Robert Frank or Lewis Hine, who had clear social agendas and who helped bring about necessary change. Tice is not this type of urban documentarian.
His photos are not about abject poverty, exploitation or conspicuous injustice. If some of his work is about suffering, it is about the suffering and neglect which has traditionally seemed bearable and acceptable to most Americans, even the ones undergoing the suffering. You might look at his photos of aspects of cities in New Jersey and say, “So what? Things look OK there. Why did he bother to take this photo?”. But his photos require reflection and discernment. He sometimes photographs the stages on which people in survival mode act out their lives. A deeper, more poignant suffering is alluded to. At his best, Tice invites you to imagine the lives that pass through or used to pass through the places he captures and in this way invites a human connection that crosses social and economic boundaries and even gaps in time. He uses the viewer’s own imagination to engage the viewer in a humane process of recognition. His best photos invite narratives of compassionate awareness and do not proselytize.
Tice realized that the passage of time, starting when a photo was taken, aided in the meaning of his photos. It made the commonplace more salient, more suitable for inspection. Tice said, “It takes the passage of time before an image of a commonplace subject can be assessed. The great difficulty of what I attempt is seeing beyond the moment; the everydayness of life gets in the way of the eternal”.
Tice did not want to “do” anything with his photos. Frank and Hine and Palfi sought social justice and produced images that shocked and called for change. Tice was photographing stuff that may not be changed, or changed quickly, things we have to live with, a lifestyle and social consequences we have to live with regardless of the underlying justice or fairness to others or the environment itself. His photos show that things ostensibly change but, upon further inspection, really stay the same. Tice showed it is possible to capture both the entropy and transformation of a city using photography and that the entropy and transformation were inextricably linked.
There is a beauty of abandonment in Tice’s photos, with the realization that we may be stuck in a new commonplace which we may not even recognize or comprehend and will only be fully aware of after it is gone. As Tice said, things will disappear but the photograph will last. What is really eternal for us are our memories and photos act as surrogates for our memories. In Tice’s photos we see the impact of the abandoned commonplace and the hope for more meaningful change in the now, although we will only recognize much of the changes later.
Another reason why Tice is not as famous as he should be is that he did not produce any really iconic images which have reached a wider public. He merely produced a whole body of excellent and incisive work. His most famous photo may be Petit’s Mobil Station in Cherry Hill New Jersey (1974). One sees the massive water tower in shade, as if dormant, while the lone station is illuminated in a barren area of nature, like a beacon for late night drivers. Tice was influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper and this could be considered Tice’s Nighthawks. Tice shows his concern for the man-made structures that support our lives. They seem permanent to us, and are a contrast to our fleeting lives, but through the art of photography these structures are also shown to be, ultimately, ephemeral and makeshift.
In Car for Sale from the city of Paterson, New Jersey (1969) we see an extemporized concrete incline winding past the front of a three story house. A car is oddly parked on the incline with a hand-written “For Sale” sign in its back window. This is a good example of how Tice invites the viewer to create his/her own narratives. How dire is the car seller’s situation? Why not just take the car in to a dealer? Why such an odd incline in front of perfectly constructed housing? In White Castle, Route #1 from Rahway, New Jersey, we see another tip of the hat to Hopper’s Nighthawks, but only the exterior of the building is illuminated against the night. One gets a sense of great effort to illuminate this mock fortress-like structure, as if there is great seriousness in the illumination, a desperate need to beckon to passing consumers.
Industrial Landscape from Kearny, New Jersey (1973) shows how industry is embedded in but divorced from nature at the same time. We see the mechanisms for the reorganization of nature to meet the needs and desires of vast populations. Wires dominate the image as both energy transmission and communication were essential elements in the construction of this facility. Yet, nature seems to be reclaiming this area as we see some type of vegetation crossing our field of vision and over-running the railroad tracks. This photo does not mean that we have suddenly attained a sustainable relationship with nature and the unsustainable has been abandoned; it means a more effective way of exploiting the natural world to meet our needs and desires has been developed.
Tenement Rooftops from Hoboken, New Jersey (1974) shows how simple people improvise and cooperate in the drying of their laundry. Jimmy’s Bar and Grill from Newark (1973) reveals a neighborhood eating place for the working class family or family man; the type of place which died out with the death of the working class in the USA. One can imagine the small families piling out of dad’s car to get a bite to eat on a weekend or the working guys dropping by for a couple of drinks before going home. Hudson’s Fish Market from Atlantic City (1973) shows how the small business establishments literally seemed to grow out of every day residential structures, as they emerged from the community itself to cater to the community only to be replaced by corporate business interests.
In Philadelphia they have preserved the very first modern prison (penitentiary) which was built in the early 1800s. It is now a museum for people to wander through and feel shock and revulsion over the disgusting conditions. The shock and revulsion do not, however, lead one to begin thinking, “Thank goodness prisons are gone! Thank goodness we rose as a society and learned to replace deterrence and punishment with a type of humane engagement and economic reform that eliminated crime.” Instead we leave Eastern State Penitentiary realizing that prisons and the “needs” that cause them are fully established in our social fabric. I believe this type of social awareness is similar to what Tice was shooting for in much of his work. He dug a bit deeper than other social photographers and ultimately asked to what extent our observable circumstances were demonstrating real progress.