Friday, November 2, 2012

Tress test

Somehow I thought Arthur Tress in person would be, well, weirder. I don't know what I was expecting exactly. Maybe his face would be in permanent shadow? Or he'd dress in black? Or have wild piercings or tattoos or something? I know it's silly but I was basing my expectations on his photos. Images like this.
Superman Fantasy, 1977, Arthur Tress

You'd have to be a bit twisted to come up with stuff like that, right? But the Arthur Tress who lectured at SPE last night in Eugene seemed completely normal. Bespectacled, well mannered, wry, jovial even. You'd barely notice him sitting next to you on a city park bench. It was a bit jarring to have this friendly uncle figure up at the podium show us one disturbing image after another. Where did those ideas come from? Where was this guy hiding his dark side?
Stephen Brecht, Bride and Groom, New York, 1970, Arthur Tress
He told a story of writing a journal entry about twins. The next day walking on the beach with a camera he encountered a pair of twin sisters and made their portrait. Did he find them by chance? Or was there some door in his mind which had already been unlocked?

"Photographs are a projection of your mind onto the world, not vice versa," he said. In other words every photograph is on some level a self portrait. In staged or conceptual work the relationship is more obvious. But even straight documentary photography is essentially about the photographer, not the subject. That's the Tress philosophy and I think he's basically right.

Some of Tress's outlook is rooted in circumstance. Take a gay Jew raised during WWII and send him globetrotting for 5 years in his early 20s during a time of mass societal upheaval. That person's photos might naturally display a healthy imagination and the strong tint of exile. In the case of someone like Tress it might manifest as a dark fantasy world. I think there's a bit of that world in all of us. In order to be a photographer, to objectify, one must be an outsider on some level. But most are unable to channel and express this alienation as clearly as Tress has. 
Untitled, from San Francisco, 1964, Arthur Tress
Most will be familiar with the magic realism photography which has become Tress's hallmark. But he's equally talented as a documentary shooter. San Francisco 1964 shows a fantastic street eye, and one which foreshadows the absurdity of his later work. In recent decades Tress has shifted back into that straight documentary style, and he's been pumping out Blurb books in rapid fashion. If you haven't revisited his photos for a while it might be time to take a fresh look. He might just surprise you.


Tyler Hewitt said...

Interesting comments about Arthur Tress. Reminds me of seeing Duane Michals speak about 15 years ago. He also seemed nice and normal (if a little cantankerous), and seemed to relish annoying the straight laced audience (this was in Toledo, OH) with the homosexual content in his work. While he enjoyed making the audience uncomfortable, he was really pleasant to talk to. I asked him to sign a book, and he wrote "To little Tyler, from Uncle Duane".

I had no idea Tress was publishing books on Blurb. Some of them look interesting. I'll likely end up spending too much money on them.

Did you happen to see Justyna Badach's talk at SPE? I didn't know she was speaking there until she mentioned it tonight when I was speaking with her on the phone. She's a good friend, I've known her for many years.

Blake Andrews said...

Yes, Tress's Blurb stash is underpublicized, and also a dangerous moneypit.

I did see Justyna's talk on Saturday followed by panel discussion with Lucas Foglia. Very interesting work and discussion. But there were many great talks at SPE so I can't write about all of them, just a few. Maybe someone else in the blogosphere has written about SPE?

Ben said...

Same with Charlie Gatewood. I saw him years ago and, based on his images, was nothing like what I expected.