Magic Realism

about Arthur Tress

Since he was just a teenager, Arthur Tress has been fascinated with documenting people. He began his first camera work as a teenager in the surreal neighborhood of Coney Island, where he spent hours exploring the decaying amusement parks and strange people who frequented the place.

Later, during five years of world travel, mostly in Asia and Africa, he developed an interest in ethnographical photography that eventually led him to his first professional assignment as a U.S. government photographer recording the endangered folk cultures of Appalachia. Seeing the destructive results of corporate resource extraction, Arthur began to use his camera to raise environmental awareness about the economic and human costs of pollution. Focusing on New York City, he began to photograph the neglected fringes of the urban waterfront with a straight documentary approach. This gradually evolved into a more personal mode of “magic realism” combining improvised elements of actual life with stage fantasy that became his hallmark style of directorial fabrication.

In the late 1960s, Arthur was inspired to do a series based upon children’s unconscious that combined his interests in ritual ceremony, Jungian archetypes, and social allegory. Interviewing children about their most memorable dreams, he attempted to depict the stories for his camera using the same children as his actors. Critic, Richard Lorenz, writes, “The collaborations covered divergent nightmares, from falling from a tower, to being buried alive, to the humiliation of failing in the classroom. Other dreams included a variety of physical restrictions and claustrophobia, monsters at the bedroom window, and drowning.”

Many themes were less specific, more fantastic, and a number of the photographs elicit simply a mood, sensation, or recollection. While the body of work was published as the artist’s first major book, The Dream Collector, in 1972, Arthur continued to expand the project for several years with many of the strongest and most haunting images appearing beneath the grouping, “Child’s Play,” in his monograph, Theater of the Mind, in 1976.

In 1974, continuing in his “collecting” vein, Arthur created a series of photographs that portray his shadow as the mythical protagonist of a visionary quest. The concept for the project in part grew out of his engagement with the writings of anthropologists and historians dealing with myth and religion.

Later bodies of work dealing with the hidden dramas of adult relationships and the reenactments of male homosexual desire evolved from this primarily theatrical approach.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Arthur began shooting in color, creating room-sized painted sculptural installations out of found medical equipment in an abandoned hospital on New York’s Welfare Island. This led to a smaller scale exploration of narrative still life within a children’s toy theater — The Teapot Opera — and a portable nineteenth-century aquarium — Fishtank Sonata.

Around 2002, Arthur returned to gelatin silver, exploring more formalist themes in the style of mid-century modernism, often combining a spontaneous shooting style with a constructivist’s sense of architectural composition and abstract shape.

In addition to images of California skateboard parksWheels on Waves —, his recent work includes the round images of the series Planets and the diamond-shaped images of Pointers.


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