| Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage |
By Richard Lorenz
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Fantastic Voyage, the book and retrospective exhibition, evaluates the long and varied career of Arthur Tress. An influential and prolific photographer, Tress has helped bridges the gap between documentary and imaginary worlds. This intimate look at his art from 1956 to 2000 traces a career from early documentary photographs to recent experiments in staged and manipulated imagery. Fantastic Voyage provides a thorough examination of Tress's photography, drawn from the extensive collection of his work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
On the surface, the significance of Tress's photography stems primarily from his early use of dreamlike, sometimes surreal, and staged imagery. Yet he has, over forty-some years, tempered the theatricality of his work to comment on the perceived authenticity of documentary photography. This approach recalls the early photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson from the 19305. Cartier-Bresson's embrace of surrealism evoked the imaginary worlds he found in unusual juxtapositions of things-of real people, the city, the natural world-to organize and bring together his personal life. His images heightened our understanding of the relationships between documents, narrative stories, and fiction. His camera could picture our dreams, its eye transcending factual experience.
Born in 1940, Arthur Tress was raised in New York City and took up photography in high school. The dilapidated buildings and freak shows of Coney Island became an early subject and he developed an abiding fascination with surrealism and fantasy, which he put to work in his pictures. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Tress began to search for ways to exceed the everyday look of life, to go beyond experience. He photographed street scenes, shop windows, museum interiors, ceremonies, and rituals in diverse cultures throughout the world, seeking to imbue ordinary life with a sense of the extraordinary.
After graduating from Bard College in 1962, Tress traveled widely in Europe, Egypt, Mexico, India, Japan, and Africa, coming into contact with rituals and religious ceremonies. This deeply affected both his aesthetics and his concern for the social world. His photography during this time combined ethnographic documentation with an appreciation for metaphor and the iconic power of architecture, statuary, and rituals. He supported himself as an ethnographic and documentary photographer, while his personal work evolved in explicitly surreal and humorous directions.
Looking beyond the obviously real, he began to stage his pictures, either by posing people or adding props that related to his increasing interest in visualizing dreams and archetypes. His work entered the studio. Increasingly, Tress stage directed his images, setting them up in theatrical ways to create fictional and allegorical representations of fears, dreams, and desires. During the 1960s, his photography changed from the anecdotal to the universal, and in turn inspired the development of fabricated or staged imagery in American photography during the 1970s and 1980s.
Fantastic Voyage is organized as an autobiography-a personal journey from the real to the imaginary-emphasizing Tress's unique language of surrealism, humor, and psychosocial commentary. It includes excerpts from each of Tress's best-known series. In addition, it features his seldom-seen early documentary work, autobiographical images exploring family relationships and evolving sexuality, and his most recent experiments with photographic distortions. The Open Space in the Inner City series (late 1960s) explores the need for ecological planning in New York City. His Dream Collector, Shadow, and Theater of the Mind series (1970s) explore inner states of awareness through fabricated scenes; Facing Up (1977-80) extends his dream imagery to examine his own sexuality.
Tress's whimsical narratives from the 1980S grew increasingly ambitious, combining complex still-life tableaux, which humorously addressed the perils of modern technology. In 1980 he began to construct and photograph tiny stage sets. The Teapot Opera series is a sequence of colorful, visual dramas, built from curiosities and odd props on a miniature French opera stage. Its poetic text and shifting scenes trace the role of magic and wonder in creativity and bemoan its declining significance in the age of reason. The Hospital series (mid-1980s) obsessively imagines terrifying medical contraptions slathered with multicolored paint in oppressive environments, evoking a dread nightmare of a modern medical toyland. His growing environmental awareness prompted the Fish Tank Sonata series (1987-90), photographed constructions of folk objects and kitsch juxtaposed against beautiful landscapes. Requiem for a Paperweight (1990-95) is a millennial comic satire of the generic treatment of workers within an increasingly homogenized corporate culture.
Today the idea of staged or fabricated imagery is commonplace in photography, especially as digital technology makes the fantastic a part of our everyday vocabulary. Tress's work, above all else, reveals a personal approach to photography, a subjective view of the world that continually reinvents itself while it ponders universal archetypes and myths.
Excerpted from Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage, by Richard Lorenz . Copyright (c) 2001 by Philip Brookman. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top