Arthur Tress is an American experimental photographer who utilizes his anthropological background to construct astonishing, dream-like expressions of his interior landscapes. Tress’s fictions, made up of ordinary objects set in commonplace environments, are organized to reveal their underlying psychological associations. Tress’s direct involvement with his subject matter generates tension between the formalism of the photograph and the subjectivity of his personal vision, creating a new hybrid form: documentary fiction. The resulting unexpected juxtapositions construct surrealistic non-sequiturs in which outer reality merges with the inner mind. The following is a distillation of recent exchanges between Tress and myself.
Robert Hirsch: How has your background affected your imagemaking?
Arthur Tress: I was born in Brooklyn in 1940. While attending Abraham Lincoln High School my older sister, Madeliene, gave me a Rolleicord camera. I began taking pictures in the Brighton Beach area of the old amusements parks and dilapidated buildings of Coney Island and the cultural life underneath the elevated subway. As soon as I picked up this camera I had a surreal and dream-like emotional response to the remarkable juxtapositions of this fairly poor area that was informed by my liberal Jewish social consciousness I learned from my parents. I was captivated by the Magic and Social realistic artists, such as George Tooker, and surrealists, like René Magritte, whose works I saw at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. I always felt like an outsider so even my early pictures have a sense of melancholic alienation to them, which I attribute to my Jewish heritage of the ghetto and the Holocaust. My father’s brother was a Hassidic rabbi who started an organization during World War II that saved thousands of Jews. Additionally, I experienced what I would now call a sense of gay alienation. I knew I was different than the other kids, even though there wasn’t such a word as gay at that time, which gave me the emotional direction for making these lonely landscapes.