For the past 60 years, Arthur Tress has been taking pictures every single day. He says the camera is just another extension of his hand now — his finger connects with the shutter like a whirring machine, all speed and no uncertainty. Photography is his calling, his obsession. Some might even call it an addiction... When Richard Photo Lab interviewed him for this article, he reminded us multiple times how he had to go out and keep shooting before the light was gone. One thing is for sure: it is masterful storytelling that’s hauntingly captivating.
Tress's work has been exhibited and published around the world, and stands in the collections of numerous museums and institutions, including the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and dozens more. But every success story has to start somewhere...
Tress says his journey in photography began like any other—a teenager in high school, expressing his creativity within the limits of his world by picking up a camera. Tress grew up in Coney Island in the 1950s, snapping photos of his classrooms, local football games, and a neighborhood in decline. When he was seventeen, he was gifted a Rolleicord camera by his sister, and started shooting for his high school yearbook.
“This was ten years after World War II, so Coney Island was kind of being ‘phased out’ at the time as people moved to the suburbs,” Tress recalls. “After school, I would wander around Coney Island and Brighton Beach. There were a lot of abandoned fun houses and amusement parks that had fallen into disrepair… The neighborhood was pretty amazing.”
Though Tress went on to study art and art history at Bard College, he credits much of his initial education in photography to photo magazines. “There were no photography schools, so I just taught myself by studying page after page of these publications,” he explains—and he considers it to be a blessing. In fact, this palpable modesty is astonishing considering his fame in the fine art photography world. What he calls a “knack” for photography, most would call an extraordinary and prolific brilliance.
From his humble beginnings, Tress was able to develop his personal style early on, discovering aesthetic influences in local museums.
“When I was in high school, you could see a lot of surrealist paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was a lot of bombed out buildings and desolated wastelands of WWII. It illustrated a style that I was excited to work with in my photography."
At the time, the most prevalent visual style in the industry was street photography, and Arthur recalls that photographers incorporating fantasy were brushed off as paltry eccentrics. But through those paintings, Arthur found the surrealist-inspired niche that would influence his art for the rest of his life: magic realism.
Magic realism as a genre has a rather broad meaning, with no hard-and-fast rules. It simply means presenting the bizarre, the supernatural, the impossible within a realistic setting. But at the time Arthur was picking up a camera, magic realism was often used to create social allegory. And for Arthur specifically, it meant pin pointing how the surreal elements of the mind are projected into the actual world.
“People think my photography is staged,” Arthur states, “but I consider it to be improvised photography. I just walk around the streets and find amazing, dream-like things in our day-to-day reality. Like in my photograph ‘Flying Dream’—I came to a playground, and there were kids playing on a fence, so I asked them to put themselves into a formation of flying birds. It’s just amplifications of the daily wonder of ordinary life.”
Merging improvisation with calculation at a time when nearly all photographers remained passive observers is part of what makes Arthur’s work so remarkable.
“I had a flying dream, a falling dream, being chased, being bitten…” Arthur says of his 1970 series called Dream Collector. “I kept them like a kind of checklist, a file in my mind. And because they were in my mind, they would appear in the real world for me.”
Tress juggles multiple projects at once (it’s just part of his creative process), each dealing with a distinctive theme. “My project Shadows was a kind of spiritual journey exploring out-of-body experiences. I took 10,000 photographs of my own shadow. Around 2010, I had a project where I just photographed my right hand. For, like, two years I took pictures of my hand just doing various thing like eating breakfast. And then I had it do unusual things, and I recreated childhood memories. Sometimes a project just begins with one or two photographs.”
Some of his photo series aren’t conceptualized before they are shot, though. For an on-going venture Tress is working on now, he started simply by exploring the area around his home, currently in San Francisco.
“They are building these huge bio medical campuses where no one is around, very sterile and empty. And they are right next to Colma, which is the city of cemeteries. There are hundreds of acres of gravestones. It’s kind of an accidental thing that I found, but now I see it as a project—I want to do a book that compares the two.”
Not that Tress has always had the luxury of strictly shooting personal fine art projects. At the start of his career, Tress also worked as a commercial photographer to pay the bills while simultaneously pursuing his creative impulses.
“As a photographer, you kind of cobble together a living from different sources. The Magnum collective accepted some of my photos into the stock files they managed, and it was standard practice amongst the photographers—Bruce Davidson, Elliot Erwitt, all of us—to have two cameras. We had one for black & white and one for color because magazines wanted color photographs. Many of my most-recognized photographs were shot in both black & white and color. But in the 1970s, color reproduction wasn’t good, it was hard to make prints, it was expensive, and the quality wasn’t great.”
Relying on black & white film has been a strategic stylistic decision in creating his ominous, illusory photographs. “I feel like color is too real,” he reveals. “I am more interested in graphic design, light, and shadow—and that comes more to the forefront in black & white.” Tress’s favorite tools of the trade are his Hasselblad and some Kodak TriX.
Paving his way to fine art success through magic realist imagery was a path built brick by brick. In the 1960s, there weren’t many serious photography galleries—but in the next decade, things changed.
“The idea of creating print editions to make a photographer part of the ‘art world’ took off in the 1970s. I became friends with Duane Michaels, who was very much a part of this art world. After seeing my Dream Collector work, he really encouraged me to do more of the intensely personally-driven fine art work.
“My first major break into the gallery/fine art realm was my series called Open Space in the Inner City. It was my own project, a self-assignment, that explored abandoned New York City spaces with the potential to become a park for kids or recreational area. Mostly along the waterfront, or abandoned railroad yards, or rooftops… It exhibited at the Sierra Club Gallery in New York, and then the photo editor from Life Magazine used some of the photographs in the publication. The New York times did a big review of the show, creating a big audience, which in turn earned my efforts some real acknowledgment.”
The influence of the series, however, stretched well beyond the art community. The series went on to be picked up by The New York State Council on the Arts and distributed as a 50-plate boxed portfolio to schools and libraries to present and discuss topics ranging from pollution to alienation.
Even decades after emerging on to the fine-art scene and finding fame, Tress hustles to find the next opportunity to share his work. “Very rarely do people, in my experience, reach out to you as a photographer,” Tress remarks. “I am still constantly contacting gallery curators, museums, and book publishers. You can send out 30 proposals and may get one response—that is just how you have to do it.
“A lot of photographers get discouraged. We live in a world of hype, where the flashiest gimmicks get the most attention. People want instant success in the arts. You can’t imitate that and you can’t get discouraged. You just have to have the resolution to see it as something you do every day, and discipline yourself to find the hours to put into it.”
After 60 years, you’d think that maintaining that kind of drive might be too hard. But for Tress, the grind of a day shooting comes with its own rewards. The kind that feed his soul.
“Photography is like doing exercise, like practicing tai chi,” proclaims Tress. “It keeps your body and mind in constant use—as an older person, you need to do that. I’m going to say it: it makes me feel young! When I am taking photos, I don’t feel 76 years old, I feel 30 years old.”
And photograph he does! Every day is a new opportunity to hunt out the wonder that hides right before our eyes. These days, Tress’s work has found a rebirth rooted not in his renowned enigmatic style, but rather his most rudimentary instincts as a photographer.
“My work has changed over the years. Right now, I am doing very simple, design-oriented photography. There is no ‘dark psychology’ which made me well known in the 1970s and 80s. Now, I take pictures of light falling on a table. I think I am regressing back to earlier photographs that I took as a teenager! They were just that first response to the miracle of analog photography, where the simplest things can be totally amazing. Not too many people are interested in these—they are like a Japanese haiku. An emotional response to light and texture and the fleeting moment.”
One could conclude that his lack of needing to attract an audience is the key to drawing one. After all, it was the pursuit of his ever-evolving creative inclinations without reserve that’s earned Arthur a spot in history as an artist—and he advises other fine art photographers to do the same.
“Don’t censor yourself. Go ahead and photograph anything around you that seems interesting. Don’t compare yourself. People think ‘this has been done before’, and you can’t think that way! I have been photographing traffic cones—they are funny, standing all around us like little guardians. I looked it up on the internet, and one hundred other people are photographing them right this minute. But I can’t ever let that discourage me.”