A journey from reality to fantasy

Arthur Tress traveled from documentary photography into staged images of primal fears and desires.


September 02, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Reputations in photography being notoriously ephemeral, it's probably just as well that the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington chose this moment to present its retrospective of Arthur Tress, the original and enigmatic photographer whose claim to fame as a postmodern innovator may not survive much longer.

Tress is one of those elusive figures who have always existed somewhere on the periphery of the main currents of the art of their day.

In the 1960s, during the last gasp of the big, mass-circulation picture magazines, he nominally worked in the documentary and photojournalistic tradition, producing oddly off-kilter, dream-like essays on topical subjects like strip mining in Appalachia or urban renewal.

FOR THE RECORD - In a review of the Arthur Tress show at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art in Sunday's Arts & Society section, the names of photographers Duane Michals, Jerry Ulesmann and Emmet Gowin were misspelled. The Sun regrets the error.

Then, in the 1970s, fantasy displaced reality as the dominant element in his work. He began experimenting with surrealist imagery that depicted the interior world of dreams and the unconscious.

Eventually, his search for ever more private meanings led him to invent painstakingly constructed visual fictions, for which he served as director, camera operator and set designer all rolled into one.

The trajectory of Tress' career is thus summed up in the title of the Corcoran show, "Arthur Tress: Fantastic Voyage, Photographs 1956-2000," which runs through Sept 23. A wall text notes that Tress' career has been "a personal journey from the real, to the imaginary, to the abstract."

If Tress were, say, a painter at the turn of last century, such a description might actually be taken as an endorsement. But at the present moment, when photography as an art form seems beset on all sides by what one critic has called a "crisis of the real," it can only be problematic. Tress' voyage from real to imaginary to abstract in fact represents a tremendous gamble -- one, moreover, that art photographers of eras past have lost with distressing regularity.

Tress himself, of course, can take a good deal of credit for creating photography's present-day "crisis of the real," a phrase popularized by critic Andy Grundberg in a slender volume of essays gathered under that title that examines photography's precarious position in the postmodern era.

Menacing Coney Island roots

The "crisis" refers to a paradox that has long bedeviled photography: Camera images possess an extraordinary appearance of objective truth; yet this claim to truthfulness is largely illusory. According to postmodern theory, photographs are no more privileged in their relationship to truth than any other kind of image. In Tress' case, this paradox has worked both for and against his reputation as an innovator. For, unlike painting, photography's important advances historically have come not by artists becoming more abstract but by their inventing new, ever more compelling conceits for what is real.

Tress began taking pictures as a teen-ager, and his first images were of the crumbling facades and equipment of New York's Coney Island amusement park. The pictures have an eerie sense of menace and dread that echoes Tress' adolescent angst and his growing awareness of his isolation as a gay man in an aggressively heterosexual society. The half-dozen or so early black-and-white images in the Corcoran show make a convincing case for the young artist's prodigious talent.

Tress' documentary phase included street photography in Europe, Mexico, Asia and Africa as well as journalistic essays for Life magazine and other publications. A couple of pictures from Mexico taken during this period show that he had an alert, sensitive eye as well as an already finely honed instinct for the macabre.

In Museum of Natural History, Mexico City (1964), a little girl with a white bow in her hair peers innocently into the camera; behind her, under the glass panes of a specimen cabinet, rows of embalmed butterflies lie pinned to their mounts. The little girl, with her cheerful bow, has been captured and immobilized by the photographer just like the dead insects impaled on the wall.

In Orthodontist's Window, taken the same year, the camera records deadpan a group of objects displayed in a shop window. Two sets of grinning false teeth hold up the window's corners, while the shelves above are lined with models of decayed teeth and the gruesome implements of the dental trade -- metal bands, pliers and probes. The picture's grim humor doesn't disguise the fact that this is a vanitas picture, a reminder of the fleeting nature of life and of the fate all flesh is heir to.

By the time Tress photographed such pictures as Boy in Water Under Bridge, Queens (1970) and Flood Dream, New York (1971), he had already abandoned the "found" images of his earlier work in favor of staged scenes in which his subjects act out primal fears and desires.

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