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Arthur Tress

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Rediscovering a Moment in San Francisco's Past

Kyle Tidd

August 10, 2012

Earlier this spring, the de Young Museum exhibited recently uncovered work by photographer Arthur Tress. In 2009, while sorting through the belongings of his recently deceased sister, Tress found a number of prints and more than nine hundred negatives he had taken on a 1964 trip to San Francisco. In those pictures, the young Tress captured the collision of two major events taking place in San Francisco — the Republican National Convention (called the Goldwater Convention after Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and held at the aptly named San Francisco Cow Palace) and the influx of a large number of Beatles fans prior to the launch of the band’s first North American tour. San Francisco at the time was also the site of the tense Auto Row demonstrations, protests against discriminatory hiring practices in the city’s car dealerships.

While the collision of these disparate groups may seem incidental, De Young curator James Ganz, who organized the exhibition, writes in the introduction to the catalog for Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 that Beatles promoters took advantage of the free press surrounding the Goldwater Convention by passing out large printed posters bearing the slogan “Ringo for President.” Although something about handing out “Ringo for President” signs seems negligible compared to, say, the hype surrounding Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert’s 2010 marches on Washington, Tress captured an early moment in mid-20th-century America when pop culture began to exert a greater influence on high-level politics, even as visual broadcast culture was still in its nascent stage.

Beyond the political marches and demonstrations, Tress photographed ordinary people in restaurants and car washes, on sidewalks and outside homes. Ganz cites the influence of photographers Robert Frank and Diane Arbus on the young Tress. I would also draw similarities between this early San Francisco work and that ofRichard Kalvar. Like Kalvar, Tress excels at finding and framing surreal moments in urban life — though unlike Kalvar, Tress admits that he would sometimes ask his subjects to pose to draw out this absurdist quality. In some instances, however, it seems that Tress’s subjects did the work for him; a reporter is quoted at the beginning of the catalog, writing on the outfits of some Goldwater supporters:

They were sitting there, these prosperous looking, middle-aged people wearing their golden capes and their cowboy hats and their sheriff’s badges, munching on their chocolate-covered ice cream bars. They were not … nuts or kooks, but they happened to look pretty odd at that moment.

In the catalog, occasional contact sheets are interspersed with carefully framed photographs. These series of images read like film stills, adding a cinematic variety to the photo spreads that surround them. The sheets are also a reminder that this collection lay unexhibited and largely unprinted for decades before being brought to light. We’re lucky to now be able to look at what Tress has made available to us — his immersion as a photographer in this moment in San Francisco’s past.

Images and text courtesy of Hyperallergic

Arthur Tress — artdaily

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Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 opens at the de Young Museum in San Francisco

Arthur Tress, Untitled (Van Ness at Geary Boulevard), 1964

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- In the summer of 1964, San Francisco was ground zero for a historic culture clash as the site of both the 28th Republican National Convention (the “Goldwater Convention”) and the launch of the Beatles’ first North American tour. The young photographer Arthur Tress arrived at this opportune moment in the city’s history and found himself in the midst of large-scale civil rights demonstrations and chaotic political pageantry. With a unique sensibility perfectly attuned to this quirky metropolis, he set about to capture the odd spectacle of San Francisco.

Over 70 photographs included in Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 range from public gatherings to impromptu street portraits, views of the peculiar contents of shop windows and commercial signs. This is the first museum exhibition of a virtually unknown body of Tress’s early work. Curator James Ganz explains, “This exhibition offers an evocative time capsule of the City by the Bay and makes a fascinating contribution to the region’s rich photographic legacy.” The exhibition runs March 3 to June 3, 2012 at the de Young Museum.

The subject matter of Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 breaks down into three broad categories: public gatherings, including civil rights and political rallies; portrait studies of San Franciscans; and views of shop windows, commercial signs and architectural fragments. Often these categories overlap. In photographing events such as the Auto Row demonstrations, Tress was interested in recording passive bystanders, as well as active participants. His candid images of spectators lining the streets of San Francisco, whether isolated or in groups, capture the distinctive fashions, expressions and body language of the era. The frequent incursions of commercial logos and signage add to the contemporary flavor of the photographs, effectively fixing time and place.

The exhibition captures the flavor of San Francisco without featuring its most familiar monuments. Tress’s approach to the city was idiosyncratic, generally avoiding popular tourist sites such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown, while favoring mundane locales like laundromats and coffee shops. Ganz observes, “Tress is a photographer of people rather than landmarks. Given the option of pointing his lens at an attraction like Coit Tower or at a tourist observing the monument, he will always favor the human element over the architectural setting.”

Born in 1940, Arthur Tress was raised in Brooklyn and started experimenting with photography in his teens. After graduating from Bard College in 1962, Tress traveled internationally for four years as an ethnographic and documentary photographer. It was during this international tour that he spent the summer of 1964 in San Francisco focusing his lens on city life. Tress developed his San Francisco negatives in a communal darkroom in the Castro District and mounted two small exhibitions in North Bay galleries that summer. He went on to pursue a long and accomplished career in photography that continues to this day.

Text and image courtesy of artdaily

Arthur Tress — kcet

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June 18, 2012

The Unflinching Aperture of Arthur Tress

Sarah Linn

Biker with Grannies

Well-heeled elderly women scowl at a leather-clad biker. A civil rights activist poses defiantly in front of a Cadillac dealership. Screaming girls hold up signs proclaiming "Ringo for President."

These are images from "Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964," a new photography exhibition that captures a pivotal time in California. The show, which ran March 3 through June 3 at the deYoung art museum in San Francisco, opens July 14 at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica.

A San Luis Obispo County resident for 20 years, Cambria-based photographer Arthur Tress is best known for the strikingly surreal works he created in the 1970s and '80s. But the glimpses of Bay Area life he captured during a stay in 1964 -- recently unearthed after decades in storage -- reveal a different side of the photographer.

Ringo for President

"When he was in San Francisco, he was really trying to find himself in every way," James Ganz, a curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said of Tress. "In one minute he's functioning as a photojournalist would. In the next minute, he's posing someone in an odd way. In the next minute, he's looking at soap suds on a window."

"He's capturing an aspect of not just San Francisco, but American life," Ganz said.

Born in Brooklyn, Tress spent his teenage years snapping photos of Coney Island's decaying amusement parks. He remembers being fascinated with the "long, lonely vistas of dilapidated buildings," which reminded him of the surreal paintings he saw in New York City art museums.

After graduating from Bard College, where he studied visual anthropology, Tress embarked on an international tour that took him across the Americas, Africa and Asia. (He also attended film school in Paris.) "It was important to visit these cultures in the '60s because most of them were on the brink of disappearing," he said, adding that his travels also exposed him to native folklore and mythology. "You can see that the earlier ... human beings didn't have such a rational view of the world with the separation between the real and unreal."

Cadillac Showroom

After a stint in Mexico, Tress traveled north to stay with his sister Madeline in San Francisco. Armed with a Rolleiflex camera, "I would just wander around the city taking pictures of storefronts and people standing in the street," recalled Tress, who was struck by the city's "beautiful clear light."

During his seven-month sojourn, his lens captured Barry Goldwater supporters in town for the Republican National Convention, Beatles fans gathered for the British rock band's first North American tour, and civil rights activists on Van Ness Avenue, a.k.a. Auto Row.

Although Tress was only 23 at the time, "He had a very mature eye," said Hannah Sloan, in charge of special exhibits at the Rose Gallery.

Tress soon went on other projects, including government gigs photographing folk craftspeople and musicians in Appalachia and black sharecroppers in North Carolina. During the 1970s, he worked for the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency as a freelance photographer documenting the startling state of New York City's waterfronts as part of the Documerica project.

Mounted Policeman

"Arthur Tress's photos are some of the most shocking examples of how bad pollution became in the 1970s," said Jerry Simmons, archives specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration, who came across those "profoundly disturbing" images in the course of his Documerica research. Tress's contributions to the collection -- which features more than 80,000 photos taken by nearly 100 photographers between 1972 and 1978 -- include haunting views of an abandoned car partially submerged in Jamaica Bay and a rusting red convertible buried up to its bumper in sand at Sheepshead Bay.

"There really isn't that great of difference between my documentary work and my surreal staged work," explained Tress, whose portfolio expanded to include eerie images inspired by children's nightmares, psychological portraits of emotionally repressed adults, and whimsical still-lifes composed of flea market finds. "I just found that was my forte. It gave me access to the more childlike, fantastic, imaginative work."

As Tress found fame as a surrealist, his earlier documentary-style photos -- particularly those of San Francisco circa 1964 -- were largely forgotten. Then, in 2009, Tress's sister died. While cleaning out her house, Tress came across a box of vintage contact prints, which he brought to Ganz.

Couple Seated

"I was really fully prepared to just pat him on the head and say, 'That's interesting,'" Ganz recalled. "I was amazed by how good and how interesting his work was." In fact, he added, those older photos anticipate aspects of Tress's later work: a painterly approach to scene composition, an off-kilter attitude. "A lot of what Arthur will become later is already present," Ganz said.

"There's a sense of oddness and weirdness in my photos, even at that point," Tress admitted, as well as a certain theatricality influenced by filmmakers including Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock and Federico Fellini.

According to Sloan, Tress's carefully composed shots set the young photographer apart from many of his contemporaries, who specialized in shoot-from-the-hip photography full of energy and emotion. That makes him a good fit for the Rose Gallery. "We're not looking for journalistic photos. We're looking for people who were documenting life as they saw it," she explained, listing Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand among Tress's peers.

Tress agreed that his San Francisco photos have a meditative quality. "There's a kind of silence to them," he said. "It's not like typical street photography, which is always very, very busy."

A similar sense of calm can be found in Tress's work on the Central Coast, which includes photos of a public shooting range in rural San Luis Obispo, elephant seals in San Simeon, and skateboarders in Los Osos. (The latter series was showcased in the book "Skate Park" in 2010.)


Tress is currently working on a series titled "100 Views of Morro Rock," inspired by 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai's woodblock prints depicting Mount Fuji. The photographer wants to portray the monolith overlooking Morro Bay as a sacred mountain, explaining "I'm always looking for the archetypical in contemporary life."

Meanwhile, "Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964" has captured the attention of The New York Times, Time magazine and The Huffington Post -- a point of pride for the photographer whose work already hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. (Many of the photos featured in the exhibit can be seen in a book published by Prestel USA earlier this year.)

Tress predicts the Rose Gallery show, which runs through Sept. 1, will lure collectors who share his passion for California's fascinating past. "Everyone has had their San Francisco '60s moment," Tress said.

Telescope Faces

Text and images courtesy of kcet