reFramed: In conversation with Arthur Tress
Woman With Sunglasses with Coin Operated Telescopes, Coit Tower, San Francisco, 1964
Arthur Tress was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 24, 1940. He took his first photographs while still in elementary school in 1952. He attended Bard College, where he studied art and art history, world culture and philosophy under Heinrich Bluecher. While studying, he continued to photograph and began making short films.
Tress was one of the first artists in the 1970s to break way from street photography and develop a more personal vision, which included manipulating the reality in front of him instead of being just a passive observer.
His work is in the collection of numerous museums and institutions.
In 2001, the Corcoran Gallery of Art featured a retrospective of his work titled “Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage: Photographs 1956-2000,” which took an intimate look at his long and varied career. For full bio, click here.
Q: How did you develop as a photographer? Were you self-taught like so many photographers of your generation?
A: I was lucky enough to go to a high school where there was a very good graphic arts department where I could study poster and book making under a teacher who thought that students, if exposed to the best in visual design by the likes of Paul Rand or Alex Steinweiss, could do work that was up to New York professional standards. My training in that area helped give me an instinctive eye for strong and simple compositions that communicate directly to the viewer.
The school was in the neighborhood of Brighton Beach and Coney Island, and although photography was not taught, my sister gave me a Rolleiflex camera as a present and I would wander around after school, shooting in the abandoned fun houses and desolate amusement parks off season with my camera, making very melancholy introverted photos that perhaps reflected how I felt as a dislocated incipient gay kid without many friends.
I learned to develop the film on my mother’s kitchen table from Popular Photography magazine and technical manuals borrowed from the library. There were very few art photo books available, but I did take the subway in to see the only museum that featured great classic photography in a serious way at the time, 1954/1958, which was the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
Perhaps the real revolution today in the high quality of contemporary photography is not the computer or digital camera but the proliferation of excellent photography programs, workshops and photo review festivals that did not exist in my day; but perhaps being self-taught gave one a sense of initiative and curiosity to be a lifetime learner that has helped me avoid over- commercialization or staleness in my approach.
Q: You have said that traveling brought you into a different kind of involvement with people. Tell me about your early travels and how they impacted your photography.
A: At Bard College in the early ’60s I tried to do artistic nature photography of leaves, rocks and sky in the style of Alfred Stieglitz or Minor White, but later I became interested in the idea of a more objective “visual anthropology” — of photography as an aid to understanding and explaining human cultures.
To explore some of these issues, my family supported me for five years to make a world tour that included several continents, to study some threatened indigenous tribal communities such as the Dogon, the Lapps, the Toda people, the Meo, Inuit and Mayans.
Influenced by the comprehensive takes on China or Moscow by Cartier-Bresson or William Klien’s books on various cities such as New York or Tokyo, I started my own student voyage of ethnographical discovery.
My first was a trip down the Nile from Alexandria to Abu Simbel, where I tried to show the overlapping cultures of ancient Egyptian, Muslim, Coptic and Nasser-style revolution. Next was a year in Mexico, where I wanted again to show the mixing of the pre-Columbian religions, the Christian and the modern political myths of the current socialist government. It was an investigative approach I would also use on our modern contemporary lifestyles in cities such as Stockholm or San Francisco.
So my attitude was that photography could make an understandable mosaic of a society’s historical fabric — of what held it together and made it function as a culture. This made me become more directly involved with photographing people in a spontaneous journalistic style — more of a concerned participant than a distant observer looking for attractive pictorial images. But also I wanted to show how the vestiges of the past could also be part of the living present.
Q: Take me back to the summer of 1964 in San Francisco, where the Beatles’ were beginning their first North American tour and the 28th Republican National Convention that nominated Barry Goldwater – which is the essay we are featuring here in reFramed. How did you end up in San Francisco? What was the political climate like then? Did you see work as a tool for social change?
A: I was returning to the States from Mexico and never had been to West Coast before, and I wanted to visit my older sister Madeleine who had moved to San Francisco several years earlier, mostly as she was a lesbian who had lost her government security clearance because of that and the fact she had marched in a May Day parade during her high school years, and San Francisco had the reputation of being a more liberal, open city.
But in the year 1964 when I did these photos, the city was in a strange mood. The Beatles had left for New York, but the “Summer of Love” was still four years away. San Francisco was essentially a conservative city ruled by a few wealthy families; however, there was change in the air. The assassination of Kennedy and the ensuing civil rights demands, plus the traumas of the growing Vietnam War, created an atmosphere of impending change.
However, when I first arrived in the city I was entranced by the clear, sharp light and the abstract plays of line and shadow, and spent hours photographing the signs, shop windows and people caught in dream-like juxtapositions of architecture; but as I spent a longer time in the city, there was also the street drama of several ongoing events that drew me in to photograph them.
The first were the beginnings of the free speech movement in Berkeley, whose activism spread over into the city in the form of organized civil rights demonstrations against the car dealerships on Auto Row on Van Ness Avenue, which lasted for two months and proved to have a successful conclusion with an agreement to hire more local blacks as salesmen.
The second was the Republication Convention at the Cow Palace. The city was suddenly filled with all these young people and older matrons adorned with candidate buttons and cowboy hats. It was a significant occurrence, as it was the beginning of the more extreme Republicanism that forwarded itself to Reagan and Bush in later years.
As with many photographers of my generation, I saw the camera as a means of social satire and commentary with the goal of them becoming mechanisms for political change. I was inspired by the work of the photographers of the “social landscape” — Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Danny Lyons, who used their cameras as media weapons to expose injustice and inequality.
Q: In many of your images from this series, people seem oblivious to your camera or not bothered by being photographed. How did you blend in so casually with a large format camera?
A: Actually, I am quite shy about approaching people to photograph them. But I have learned to be quiet and blend in with the crowd and make myself disappear a bit, and I am a quick little bugger if I need to be. People in the early ’60s were not used to seeing a lot of casual cameras around and were flattered by the attention.
Ironically, today, with the superabundance of digital eyes everywhere, people are much more suspicious and hostile, as they are afraid they will appear in an uncomplimentary manner on Facebook, Flicker or YouTube, and forget about ever spontaneously photographing children. However, also, the Rolleiflex has an unusual property that you can use it held far above one’s head like a periscope and sort of have a bird’s-eye view that most subjects don’t realize it is themselves you are capturing. It gives some of my best images a floating quality that is quite magical, I think.
Q: You were only 24 at the time you made these images. Were you influenced at the time by other street photographers who were making a name for themselves?
A: Perhaps the most important influence on me at the time and perhaps still is would be Cartier-Bresson. I was to meet him a year later while I was studying at a Zen temple in Kyoto, and we shared some time together. I showed him some of my photos, and of course he thought they were too square and studied. Although I never really persuaded his 35mm aesthetic, we shared a love of surrealism where the ordinary scene or event can participate in an otherworldly, detached, dream-like quality, especially if the image is pulled away from its specific associations of its documentary informative caption.
And the photos have a strange sense of silence about them — a term Diane Arbus was also to use about her own work during those years; perhaps it was America waiting like it is now for the other shoe to drop. Also, like myself at Bard College, he had early training as a painter with Andre Lhote, the French cubist artist, which pushed forward a style of geometric precise composition, instantaneously and intuitively done in the moment, so to speak. If you view the images from the series SF1964, almost all have this very precise arrangement of forms done on the “vif,” which to me convey the sense of the emotional thrust of the image in a clearly defined way.
Q: It was certainly an interesting mix of people gathering in the streets of San Francisco during that time. So I’m curious, how did Beatles fans relate to Barry Goldwater supporters, and how did Barry Goldwater supporters relate to Beatles fans?
A: There was really only one instance where I had the two groups together in one place. That was at a Bill Scranton [the moderate Republican candidate for the nomination] rally in Union Square.
Scranton was giving a serious speech when all of a sudden several busloads of enthusiastic Beatlemaniacs — fanatical young teenage girls carrying mostly homemade signs — invaded the park with noisy shouts of “Ringo for president,” creating a chaotic scene that disrupted Scranton’s all-American marching band’s ability to carry on with its performance. They were viewed with disdain by the groups of watching lunch-hour executive “Mad Men” types in their dark suits, cigarettes and ties. A month later the Beatles were to begin their famous first U.S. tour in the same ground zero for the Goldwater revolution — the San Francisco Cow Palace.
And perhaps America was never the same again.
Q: Now that you have had an exhibit of this work at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, have you heard from any of the subjects, and if so, would you like to share any tales?
A: Actually, we were all hoping that someone would show up; and a nice woman, Diane Zarte from San Jose, did, and by chance I happened to be there and we got our picture taken together. She was about 12 when she went to the Ringo for President rally. The San Francisco paper even did a brief story about it.
More importantly, the exhibit at the DeYoung was always filled with people experiencing their ’60s San Francisco moment. The show brought back a lot of memories for people of what San Francisco was like at that time. The curator, Jim Ganz, did a good bit of detective work and found the exact locations of most of the photos or buildings, which I had long forgotten, by examining, using Google street maps and even blowing up the reflection in a person’s eyeglasses to determine that it was a circus parade they were watching because they had captured an elephant!
Arthur Tress’ work is currently on exhibit through Sept. 1st at Rose Gallery in Santa Monica.
Images and text courtesy of the Los Angeles Times