Arthur Tress Sought the Shadow Side of Photography

LOS ANGELES — The earliest recorded evidence of humans’ fascination with dreams dates to antiquity, when Heraclitus wrote, “When men dream, each has his own world. When they are awake, they have a common world.” For photographer Arthur Tress, dreams became fertile ground from which to grow a remarkable and previously little-known artistic vision. Tress’s photographs are currently on view in Arthur Tress: Rambles, Dreams, and Shadows at the Getty Center, curated by James A. Ganz and accompanied by a richly illustrated, informative catalogue. 

The show focuses on the photographer’s formative decade between 1968 and 1978, highlighting selections from six bodies of work: Appalachia: The Disturbed Land; Open Space in the Inner City; The Dream Collector; Shadow; The Ramble; and Theater of the Mind. The first two show Tress contending, not too successfully, with the dominant modes of American photography of the late 1960s. In Appalachia, he visited the terrain associated with Walker Evans and other Farm Security Administration photographers who visualized immiseration in the 1930s. In Open Space, he adopted the visual idiom of straight street photography inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” and pushed to its psychological limit by the likes of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand — the three protagonists of the landmark 1967 exhibition New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art

It is with the 1972 photo book The Dream Collector that Tress came into his own way of working, openly staging scenes for the camera and rejecting the idea of photographs as documents of external reality. In a 1970 essay, “The Photograph as Magical Image,” he wrote, “The photographer as magician is … someone who … can call forth hidden emotions or states of feeling that are usually tightly wrapped in our unconscious selves.”

Arthur Tress, “Ed Berman and His Mother, Brooklyn, New York” from the series Theater of the Mind (1975)

For The Dream Collector, Tress asked children in public spaces to help stage his photographs, often using objects found on the scene as props. His subsequent photo books, Shadow (1975) and Theater of the Mind (1976), tread further into psychological worlds as he enacted psychodramas using his own shadow (both literally and drawing on the Jungian concept of a person’s “shadow side”) as well as friends and acquaintances. At their most successful, the images from these series have the potency of actual dreams. They inspire visceral but confusing feelings, memories, and associations. They nudge viewers to visit uncomfortable places without prescribing a route. 

One question this show implies but does not answer is to what genre these photographs belong, as they blur the lines between allegorical tableaux vivant, portraiture, and self-portraiture. And who are the models captured in the works?

One strength of the exhibition is its deployment of Tress’s biography to inflect interpretation without reducing the work’s meaning to the artist’s identity. A gay Jewish man who was bullied and struggled with coming out, a self-taught photographer, an amateur ethnographer who lived abroad extensively, Tress was able to examine social institutions like school, family, and career from the outside. But aside from a group of photos taken in 1969 at the Ramble, Central Park’s cruising ground, his work rarely addresses homosexuality directly (the few pieces that do are deeply moving). Instead, his work’s sensibility gets at the strangeness that characterizes the original usage of “queer.” Tress’s queerness didn’t single-mindedly serve the cause of gay liberation, but it did throw into stark relief the subterranean assumptions of “straight” photography that dominated the medium into the 1980s — that truth can be captured in a single instant; that people are knowable from first appearances; that the photographer can ever be a neutral, invisible observer. 

Tress’s work bridges multiple realms, including the two Heraclitus saw as separate. This exhibition is a valuable glimpse into the ways the artist released his dreams into the waking world while transforming them into wormholes for his viewers to venture into their own psyches.

Arthur Tress, “Boy with Basketball, Bronx, New York” from the series The Dream Collector (1970)

Arthur Tress: Rambles, Dreams, and Shadows continues at the Getty Center (1200 Getty Center Drive, Bel Air, Los Angeles) through February 18. The exhibition was curated by James A. Ganz.

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