In a career extending from the mind-1950s to the present, Arthur Tress has created an extensive, rich, and wide-ranging body of work. Initially Tress worked in a documentary, but slightly surrealistic, style in desolate urban environments. For several years he traveled extensively, recording rituals and ceremonies of folk cultures. Returning to the American urban environment, he began to pose young people in fantasy scenes recalling archetypal childhood dreams. He created a hundred-image series of his shadow that told a complex story of an odyssey for enlightenment. He made a series of surrealistic portraits of adults in strange, emotionally-charged tableaus. He did homoerotic male nudes. Then a stunning change of subject matter occurred. Previously, almost all of Tress’ images had been of people, but in the early 1980s, he began to create arranged still lifes, first with one or two man-made objects in natural scenes, progressing to complex constructions that allegorically evoke emotional reactions. He created sculptures by arranging, modifying, and painting objects found in an abandoned hospital, and documented his creations with photographs. He made up fantastic stories, and told them in series of still-lifes. He created paper sculptures from photographic prints. A retrospective look at his work is available in book form: Arthur Tress, Photographs 1956 – 2000. His work may be viewed on his web site: www.arthurtress.com.
Jim Kasson interviewed Arthur Tress at his studio in Cambria, California.
JK: Over the years, you’ve had an incredibly varied body of work: one surprising, creative way of looking at the world followed by another, equally original, but from a dramatically different perspective. Where does that variety come from?
AT: There’s a problem of the older photographer – I’ve been photographing since I was 15 – you can get burned out, or you can get stuck in certain formulas. I saw a Dorothea Lange show at the Oakland Museum, and I bought the catalog. She says that, as she became an older photographer, she kept on photographing the same way: she traveled extensively – Bali, Japan – and photographed people’s hands everywhere she went. It was hard for her to get out of her ingrained way of making images. I’ve had a strategy to avoid that.
JK: Do you get bored easily?
AT: Not really, but I’ve noticed that I do my best work within the first few months of any project. If you go on too long, the work becomes stale.
JK: For you, there’s a short arc of improvement…
AT: …then it goes steady, and after a while, I’m doing the big yawn. I’ve already done that. Why do I need to make that statement again? Why do I need to make that little kid with his head coming out of the roof? People love the children’s dreams, but I think you have to reinvent yourself.
JK: Do you consciously do that, or you just notice that you’re getting to the end, and start looking for something else?
AT: I’ll push myself to complete a series, because sometimes when you get to the end of your rope, you can go beyond and actually invent something new – something you hadn’t seen before. Too often people give up too soon. But at some point, after two or three years, I’ll either take two steps backwards and return to some earlier style, or I’ll go on to something new.
JK: Your latest public works are three-dimensional sculptures constructed out of photographic prints. How did you get started on that?
AT: It grew organically. I’d done Requiem for a Paperweight. It was a narrative series of color silhouettes projected against a piece of frosted glass. I finished that series, and then I got a faceted crystal ball and began projecting colored lights through it and adding collage elements. I worked on that for a year, and got it to a point where I couldn’t go any further. One day, I was looking at all the boxes of black and white prints from the crystal ball series, and I wondered what it would be like if I began cutting one up. I started making a flat collage, and then I was just playing around and I noticed that if I took two ends of a piece of photo paper and glued them down with acid-free glue, it made a little bridge. I’m not the first person to notice this: kids in fourth grade make Santa’s beard that way. I said, “Well, that’s interesting,” and then I spent the next two years cutting and gluing, making 8 by 10 by 8 inch photo reliefs. I’d do them in a day or so, with acid-free glue. As I was doing them, I was constantly amazed that I could do something like this. I began building cities and spaceships all out of paper. I got better and better at it, so finally I could make huge structures, almost like architectural models, with rooms within rooms. I got it to a point where I could do an entire piece with only four corners glued down.
JK: How long did you do the three-dimensional work?
AT: I worked for two years on it. Day after day–that’s what separates the men from the boys. It becomes an obsession.
JK: The result doesn’t read like a photograph. It’s a collage; it’s a sculpture. You don’t realize that it’s made out of photographs until you get close to it. How has the three dimensional work been received?
AT: People don’t really know how to react to it. About 15 years ago I did a series called the Hospital series, where I painted objects in abandoned hospitals, creating sculptures, and photographed them. At the time, people had similar reactions, but now there’s more understanding and acceptance. In a lot of my work there are sculptural elements, but they become the subject of a flat photograph. In the paper sculpture, I don’t photograph them: the objects themselves are the final expression of the idea. In my next project, I’ve been photographing a lot of mid-century modern architecture: motels, residences. I have a feeling that where this is heading is that I’m going to build paper cities like architectural models, and photograph them, but I just let this process progress at its own speed.
JK: There’s a continuum in photography with respect to the amount of control the photographer exerts over the subject. On one extreme, you’ve got Weegee, with seemingly artless images of interesting people or events. Then there’s Eugene Richards. Then Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Skipping over the broad middle part, you get to highly arranged still lifes and staged tableaus. Some photographers don’t stop with arranging natural objects; they actually make the objects they photograph. You’ve been on the constructionist side of this scale for most of your career.
AT: You’re talking about the axis from totally found to elaborately fabricated subjects.
JK: Exactly. If you’re making the work in a studio, constructing every aspect of it, your vision comes from within. If you’re out there in the world, taking what it throws at you and reacting to it like Cartier-Bresson, there’s an element of surprise, and you’re in a reactive frame of mind. In still lifes, the element of surprise is there, but it’s different: You move things around and look at the ground glass, and get surprised, but you’re in control of the clock. The two approaches feel different, don’t they?
AT: No! [Laughs] It’s the same process. Not everybody realizes it. A lot of fabricated work falls flat because it looks too contrived. Part of the effort in fabricated photography is to make it spontaneous and natural, as if it did appear by itself, not overly elaborated.
JK: When you get the film developed from a still life session, are you surprised?
AT: Oh, sure. My process, either in documentary or in fabricated images, is very instantaneous. I include a lot of accident and chance.
JK: Most of your photographs are about ideas, yet they are carefully and precisely produced. Is the idea the important thing for you, or is the finished photograph, the object itself, equally important?
AT: There is always a tension between craft and concept. I try to balance the two. Even though my technique is very simple – I’ve used one camera with two lenses and one film for forty years – I don’t believe in over-printing a photograph. I don’t believe in a photograph as precious object. I think the photograph should be well-designed. The lights and darks should convey the emotional quality of the print. I don’t get overly involved in the craft process.
JK: Did you used to print yourself?
AT: Until 1990. I had a darkroom in New York. In the 90s I did a lot of color, and had it printed for me. I haven’t gotten back into printing my own work, even when it’s black and white.
JK: What are you working on now?
AT: At the moment I’m very concerned with new visual constructs. I’m doing a lot of found photography. You might call it documentary photography or reportage. For the last two or three years I’ve been doing highly fabricated pieces with a lot of hand work: hand painted, hand built sculptures. Every ten years or so, I spend a year or two going back to just pure seeing. I drive around in my car, and if I find an interesting building or locale, I’ll stop and photograph it. I think it’s good for my eye to do that. Basic visual perception, intuitive without much thought, but trying to push it a little further than I’ve done before. I call it tickling the eye. I look for interesting angles and relationships in the things themselves. Sometimes it becomes slightly surreal. The last week I’ve been photographing high school parking lots and baseball fields. It’s a good way to recharge my batteries. Many documentary photographers fail in that their photographs are not stimulating visually. They’re bland in composition and angle.
JK: Your idea of documentary photography isn’t f/8 and be there.
AT: I’ve spent some time with Cartier-Bresson. He makes highly structured, geometric, artfully crafted images that are still spontaneous. I’m trying to do simultaneously do a spontaneous, carefully constructed, well- designed photograph that also pushes the edge of where that kind of photograph can go. It forces me to be visually inventive.
JK: When you’re show up in the high school parking lot, you don’t bring any pre-conceived ideas with you?
AT: Right. It’s the opposite of the way I usually work. I think there’s something the way that photography has been defined in the 20th century that encourages the snapshot approach. It’s important to the photographic experience. I’ve been doing it for a year and a half now, and I’m about to start moving beyond it.
JK: You’ve been adventurous in embracing new things. You haven’t been afraid to change from black and white to color and now back to black and white. You’ve done documentaries, portraits, nudes, still-lifes…
AT: Gerhard Richter paints in a hundred different styles, and he is much admired. But in photography, that kind of variety makes people nervous.Most people say you need to have a consistent portfolio. Quite often, when photographers go off towards a new style, they get slapped down. Their work won’t sell in the galleries as well as their earlier work. So, being human, they go back to what’s acceptable. I have a theory that I call nobility of failure. It’s a Japanese concept. It’s something that I’ve been working towards. Rather than trying to create images that are hits, or winners, I go the opposite way. Look at your work to see which are the flops, and even consciously try to make flops – while working with sincerity – because those may be the gateway to other things. They’re your renegades. When I go through my recent contact sheets – dumpsters, tennis balls, construction sites, and Fourth of July picnics – I look at the contact sheets not for pictures that come together, but for what motivated me to see that originally.
JK: The contact sheet is an insight into your subconscious?
AT: Kind of. It’s a certain derangement of your head from the success syndrome. Absolutely no one likes these photos.
JK: Do you feel looser when you’re making these images?
AT: I feel happier. Most of my projects of the past ten or fifteen years are in what I call my Walt Disney period: Teapot Opera, Fish Tank Sonata,Requiem for a Paperweight. Three very easily understood narratives. I did it for a wide audience – nine to ninety. They’re easily understood pictures. That was the level I wanted to work on. But when I turned 60, I decided to do very personal photographs. Maybe not even show them to people. Maybe they’ll just find them in boxes after I’m gone. It’s a complete reversal of my usual attitudes. I’ve become introverted. I have to constantly remind myself that if the photo pleases me, then it’s validated. I don’t think they’re very salable; they’re not male nudes, they’re not children, they’re not kitschy little objects. I have this photograph of two broken Styrofoam cups on a street corner. I don’t know where’s that’s going to lead. I’ve given myself this luxury of time to see where this is going to take me.
JK: Before 1990, for the most part, when you get started on a series, are you thinking of your audience, or were you thinking of you?
AT: Many of my photographs are done as book projects. I have to find a publisher, and I want to print five or ten thousand books, so I need to have clearly articulated concepts.
JK: When you were looking for next project, if you came up with an idea that wasn’t very well articulated, or didn’t fit, would you toss it out and look for something that did?
AT: Well, no.
JK: I didn’t think so; creative people don’t usually work that way. It’s hard to be creative when you’re not doing it for yourself. Maybe it’s yourself, and…
AT: …yourself, and an audience.
JK: You make surreal, ambiguous photographs that invite people to become emotionally involved. Is there a larger agenda here?
AT: In the art world, many people view the art as having extracurricular value. If a woman photographer starts doing nudes of herself, or of older women, she is forced to think of her project as something dealing with the problems of gender, and celebrating the bodies of older women. It starts getting a propagandistic value; something the art world has to have to be valid. It’s hard to avoid.
JK: Is this usually driven by the audience, or the photographer?
AT: We’ve all gotten so much into that thought process. Michael Kenna’s photos of Moss Landing have to save the swamps. My male nudes or pictures of gay lovers are making a political statement about gay people merging into everyday American life.
JK: You don’t think of them that way?
AT: No, but that’s how they get labeled. Then the artist starts justifying what he’s doing in the same way.
JK: Is that one reason to do work thinking that nobody’s ever going to see it?
AT: There is that instinct. Unfortunately, the pictures are coming out so fast. I have two closets full, and maybe they can’t sit there forever.
JK: There’s what you tell yourself to create the best picture. And there’s what you do after you’ve gotten the pictures.
AT: Part of my self image is that I do eccentric projects: like the hospital projects, the fish tank series, the crystal ball.
JK: A lot of photographers struggle with fact that many photographic genres have been extensively worked before they got there. You don’t seem to have any problems finding completely unworked territory.
AT: I’m happy to work in well-trodden paths as well. Every photographer has at least one shadow picture. It doesn’t bother me. For my shadow series, I used a thousand rolls of film.
JK: You do roots and rocks?
AT: I’m doing roots and rocks right now. I’ve been doing a lot of them. Not like the Carmel school of photography. They don’t push it far enough. Maybe they’re afraid to fail. They’ve invested a lot of time and money, and they want payback. So they don’t take risks.
JK: Not your problem.
AT: I’ve struggled with that from a different perspective since I’ve turned sixty. There a number of projects I could do, but there are term limits to think about.
JK: Your own term?
AT: Yeah. So I think, “What is the most productive way I can spend my time?” At the end of Fantastic Voyage, I write, “Some route may sweep you unexpectedly away for months or years at a time, only to evaporate suddenly into a dry streambed in an artistic and financial desert asking which way is out.” I’m conscious of that. It’s a dangerous attitude.