The Unflinching Aperture of Arthur Tress

Biker with Grannies.jpg
 Biker with Grannies. | Photo: Arthur Tress.

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. |  Photo: Arthur Tress.
Ringo for President. | Photo: Arthur Tress.

"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. |  Photo: Arthur Tress.
Cadillac Showroom. | Photo: Arthur Tress.

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. |  Photo: Arthur Tress.
Mounted Policeman. | Photo: Arthur Tress.

"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. |  Photo: Arthur Tress.
Couple Seated. | Photo: Arthur Tress.

"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.)

Hello. |  Photo: Arthur Tress.
Hello. | Photo: Arthur Tress.

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. |  Photo: Arthur Tress.
Telescope Faces. | Photo: Arthur Tress.

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