George Tiedemann is a Nikon legend Behind the Lens.
George Tiedemann's life was shaped by sports long before he began to photograph them. Attracted to the competition, welcoming the responsibility, he played as a youngster, as a young man and as a member of the Marine Corps. "It was one of the reasons I joined the Marines—because it was competitive," he says. "In the Marine Corps, it was always, 'What else can you do for us?' Standards and expectations were there to go after, to live up to."
George joined the Marines in 1964 and did a year-long tour in Vietnam. He carried a camera, but he was "a Marine who liked to take pictures," not a combat photographer. "I point no cameras at people who point guns at me," he says.
It was in the Marines that the interest in photography he'd had as a youngster was revived and the idea of photography as a career was born. "While I was in Vietnam I decided that I didn't want to do something the rest of my life that I didn't like," George says. "I made up my mind to do what I enjoyed."
Out of the service he went to work for the Asbury Park [New Jersey] Press in the circulation department. "I did some freelance work for them while in circulation, and eight months later was offered a staff job." One of his first assignments was a Janis Joplin concert. "It was 1969, and four years in the Marines was like four years in a time capsule. I went to photograph the concert and looked around and thought, what happened while I was away? Being in the Marine Corps, I had time off the base, but I just wasn't involved in the social turmoil that was going on. It did not exist in my mind. Other people's attitudes didn't bother me, I wasn't even aware of them. I did what I was asked to do because that was my responsibility."
George spent seven years on newspapers before moving on to sports photography. "There's the emotional stress and strain that newspaper work puts on you when you get close to the stories or attached to your subjects," he says. He mentions photographing a policeman's grieving widow, then talks about a photo he took of young girl kissing her father just after she'd had exploratory surgery. "She had a brain tumor, and the doctors gave her a thousand to one chance of surviving the operation. I got the assignment. I didn't want to go, didn't want to be there. But I went and took the pictures, and she survived. But suppose she hadn't?" The attraction of sports was obvious: "Sports is a game. Nobody dies. You can be the last out on the losing team in the World Series, and the next morning you get up with your family."
Having done everything under the sun made me more versatile [as a photographer]. If I had a chance, I'd do some research, of course, but if it was something... which I was not familiar with, well then I'd make sure I got there early and asked a lot of questions.
Freelance work for the North American Soccer League eventually led to Sports Illustrated, where he worked for close to 20 years as a contract and staff photographer. He's often described himself as SI's "utility infielder," the man with the camera who was willing and able to cover anything and everything, from outrigger canoe races to the Little League World Series. "My photographic life was like Mission: Impossible," he once said. "The phone would ring and they'd ask, 'Are you willing to tackle this assignment?'" George's work appeared most frequently in the pages of Sports Illustrated, but also in Time, Newsweek, Life and People.
He credits his newspaper background for giving him the moves of a utility infielder. "Having done everything under the sun made me more versatile," he says. "If I had a chance, I'd do some research, of course, but if it was something like cricket, which I was not familiar with, well then I'd make sure I got there early and asked a lot of questions."
Gradually he began to photograph more and more motor sports, especially NASCAR events. His 2001 book, Trading Paint: Dale Earnhardt vs. Jeff Gordon, Classic Photos from a Classic Rivalry, follows the decade-long battle of the two racing champions.
"Being a utility infielder was interesting, but not as financially rewarding as being a specialist in a major sport like baseball, basketball or football. When you're a specialist, as I've become with NASCAR, people know your name and they call you. When you're a utility infielder, you're often called on to work with other photographers at, say, a World Series or Super Bowl, to enhance the publication's coverage. More often than not you don't get the key shooting positions—which is fine, because you wouldn't expect to be shooting the World Series from the first base dugout when you haven't done baseball all year. The specialists get those positions." Which is not to say the secondary positions can't pay off. "I had an auxiliary spot at a World Series games in Atlanta years ago—it was a TV camera position in one the gondola baskets on the second deck, and I got the cover of SI from there."
The emphasis on NASCAR settled his life and his travels a bit. "Until I started covering NASCAR on a regular basis, my life was, well, what's next?" Even though today NASCAR has become a big part of his work as a full-time freelancer, it's not because he deliberately pursued it. "I'm not a goal setter. My mindset is, take care of today; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sometimes I think that people who are focused on where they want to be forget about where they are. For me, the most important job is the job I'm doing right now, not the one coming up."
George doesn't intend to retire anytime soon, but on his mind these days are concerns and pleasures other than photography. "I think you reach a certain point where your interests change," he says, "and I don't necessarily mean photographic interests. When your children's children need attention, that's a good time to change your focus." The career he's had has been enjoyable, he says, and then ticks off the other adjectives: interesting, challenging, motivating, thought-provoking. "But young people today need more help than we needed, and I'm ready to give it within my family." Clearly, it's not a sacrifice.
"At the end of your career," George says, "there's got to be a life."
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Photographing it All
With experience as a newspaper photographer and close to 20 years with Sports Illustrated, George Tiedemann has covered just about everything.
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