Arthur Tress is one of the most eminent, and consistently imaginative, photographers of his generation, which includes Duane Michals and Jerry Uelsmann. His style originated in the 1960s when surrealist, staged photography ruled. But Tress evolved a style all his own that is both dreamlike and formally composed out of contemporary subject matter. He takes everyday objects and subverts their function so that they become something of myth holding a quixotic, playful meaning. Magic, theater, and fantasy are the markers in his unique works. About photography’s potential, he has written, “So much of today’s photography doesn’t ‘grab us’ or mean anything to our personal lives. …It fails to touch upon the hidden life of the imagination which is hungry for stimulation. The documentary photographer supplies us with facts or drowns us in humanity, while the pictorialists please us with mere aesthetically correct compositions. But where are the photographs we can pray to, that will make us well again, or scare the hell out of us?”
From the very start of his career, Tress demonstrated an understanding of photography’s potential to transform the mundane into the fantastic. His images are from the natural world, but are inundated with symbolism and strange juxtapositions. The photographer invites us into a dream world that can be playful yet threatening. Images abound filled with weapons and saws, machines, and ruins. Both the children and the male nudes in his photographs are rarely portrayed at rest or in formal portraits. They are rather engaged in modern tableaux acting out symbols of modern life, a pretend world with violence and mystery ever at hand. In the reviews of his major Corcoran retrospective he was dubbed “a national treasure,” fitting for a photographer who captures symbolically so wide a range of modern life. Tress’s work is collected by major museums around the world, including the Whitney Museum of American Art; George Eastman House; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Art, Houston; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.