Arthur Tress is a photographer whose work freely crosses the boundaries of documentary, narrative, and the surreal. He’s traveled the world and traversed the subconscious. And his work has special meaning to us, as he’s not only created over 25 Blurb books, but he shot some of his early work in San Francisco, Blurb’s home city. His work from that period was recently shown at the DeYoung Museum. Quick-witted and introspective, the 71-year-old Tress continues to push boundaries and inspire. In fact, when I met Tress at the DeYoung on the penultimate day of his show, he was full of advice and ideas for me and my projects.
So naturally, I wanted to include him in our Five Questions series:
Blurb: What got you into photography initially?
Tress: Like most kids, I began in High school. I took pictures for the school yearbook and newspaper, but I also spent hours wandering around my neighborhood of Brighton Beach and Coney Island which, as it turns out, was very photogenic, being full of abandoned amusement parks, fun houses, rundown housing and pool halls. What was popular in the museums at the time was a kind of social surrealism and magic-realism paintings by Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, and Ben Shawn, who were trying to show the effects of economic depression and World War ll, but using the language of dreams and myths. I wanted my photography to be like that and I was eventually able to learn how to be expressive in that way .
Blurb: We love to know about cameras. Can you tell us about the cameras you’ve shot with?
Tress: Basically I have always shot with a 2 1/4 square format, either a Rollieflex or Hasselbald. It gives you a nice sense of seriousness and solidity and yet is small enough to be used spontaneously.
Blurb: What does surrealism mean to you in your work?
Tress: A definition of surrealism was once “a sewing machine on an operating table” – meaning taking things out of their original context with a displacement of location. Every photograph is kind of like that actually… removing things and people from their natural life flow and putting them in a kind of frozen freeze frame.
But also things to me like paintball, with these guys running around in 100 degree heat in these elaborate military outfits in kind of “Mad Max” bunker environment… seem to me unreal – or surreal. And so I made the Blurb book Splat Zone that demonstrates that kind of weird human oddness.
Blurb: You’ve made over 25 Blurb books, but you’ve also had your work published by traditional art publishers. What do your Blurb books mean to you?
Arthur: I think the name of the game now is ‘sharing’ the work. I get about 300 hits a week on my Blurb bookstore. I think mostly it is students. No one really buys them, but I hope I can be an inspiration to the next generation and set an example of a lifetime devoted to making images, and in my fantasy even perhaps changing the world with a strong-but-slightly-wacky personal vision that has never paid much attention to other people’s opinions or the values of the art-world market place. I’m poor, but very free and might even now, at 71, finally be getting some of recognition I have long deserved. My advice is just hang in there for the long run.
I am slowly making my whole archive into small Blurb books. A book format can take a random bunch of miscellaneous photos and show how it was originally conceived of 40 years ago – i.e., my latest Blurb book, To Live and die In Dixie (1969) was just a magazine article that I include in the text. It makes the reason ‘why’ I took the photos in the first place much more understandable.
Also, I am always putting up newer projects all the time. Every photographer has series of photos that he has worked on for a year or two and that had only a brief shelf life in terms of exhibits or publications. The books take these orphaned or even forgotten-about projects and give them another more permanent life.
And the affordability of the well-printed Blurb book makes it an ideal vehicle for book experimentation in format, sequence and design. My books Barcelona Unfolds and Miami Unfolds take the very simple idea of DIY gatefolds to create a whole new concept of what is possible in the online book experience and I hope others take up the challenge.
Blurb: You’ve said that you no longer see a difference between a documentary approach to photography and “staged, manipulated imagery.” Can you talk about how this understanding developed?
Tress: As I get older and have been photographing for about 55 years, I float between staged and documentary photography often in the same project. For the newest one, “100 views of Morro Rock,” usually I am doing a kind of traditional photo reportage that relies on chance juxtapositions, but sometimes I bring props or include my own hand a or feet in the photo.
It really is about having a neurological matrix of the mind/idea inside oneself internally that projects itself out onto the external world, and the world conforms somehow to that idea synchronistically or by accident to what you originally desired. The subject out there (if it really ever exists in the first place) becomes a kind of visual reflection or meditation of your own focused interior mental state. How you get to it is inconsequential.