De mortuis, a Latin saying decrees, nihil nisi bonum (Of the dead, [say] nothing but good). As if I needed to be reminded of this, remembering Alice Rose George who just left us. She was one of photoland’s many invisible hands who brought greater good to all of us.
A proud and fierce Southerner, Alice contributed all that is highly spoken of from that region — without any of that which is unspoken but all-too present. She was courteous, independent, and lively, and she knew of and acknowledged the human condition. She loved a good drink, and I have yet to meet another person able to match her incredible, yet vulnerable wit, used to great effect when telling her often marvelous stories of the people she had met and interacted with (I will not re-tell her anecdote of André Kertész encountering the work of Diane Arbus — it still makes me laugh).
Alice could make you see the beauty in a photographs that previously might have eluded you. Taste being taste, you might not end up agreeing with her regarding the overall merit of a group of pictures or book. But you had been made to see differently, finding enjoyment in the previously unenjoyable. I fondly remember our disagreements more than the agreements, given it is the former that had me realise the extent of our shared devotion to looking at and living with photographs. I’d like to think that we learned from each other, even though I’m sure that most of the learning must have happened at my end.
Alice was generous and open to new experiences in an environment that more often than not merely pays lip service to the idea. Unlike many other people I’ve met, she was just as comfortable in the company of pictures that had been deemed to belong to the canon a long time ago as when seeing photographs made by someone much younger than her and with a very different life experience. She would devote time to someone starting out, someone in need of a trained set of eyes, to help them see the way she saw, reminding us of the subtle difference in the expressions “to have time” and “to make time.”
When a group of Saudi terrorists flew airplanes into New York City’s World Trade Center, Alice became instrumental in organising a communal processing of the then shared grief through exhibiting photographs, photographs taken by professionals who happened to be there as much as all those nameless others with their cameras. Here is New York, an exhibition and later book that stated: here is the multitude of all of us. We stand together. We will not be divided. A few short months later this idea was betrayed by the Bush administration.
Alice didn’t suffer fools lightly, whether in photoland or elsewhere. It shudders me to imagine her horror of seeing what the country has become under the crass real-estate developer who came out of the New York City she loved so much. Obviously, she knew the type, having lived in the city, having had jobs in the cut-throat publishing world, having worked at Magnum Photos, having dealt with wealthy art-world types. Her wit would have helped her through all of it.
Photographs don’t suffer fools lightly, either (even when they were made by them). Alice would select the good pictures out of a pile of bad ones in less time than it took me to write this sentence. A force of nature of supreme visual literacy, Alice was not “able to see”: she simply saw, making everyone feel that what they thought of an ability to be learned with difficulty was something she had been born with. Having picked the gems, however many or few she had found, she would then gently yet firmly probe their maker over her or his intentions.
Alice’s interests were not limited to photography. There was a piano in her living room; whenever we met she told me about a book she had just enjoyed, urging me to read it, too; and she wrote poetry, some of which she had published in books and magazines — this she never talked much about. What we summarise as culture or art meant a lot to her, and she saw photography as a part of it. The crassness of today’s world, the one she has now left, makes it difficult to see how believing and partaking in the value of art can make a difference. For Alice, it simply did — this might be her final lesson for us all.
Rest in peace, Alice.