Book Review: Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964

Arthur Tress

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940, Arthur Tress started taking photographs while still at elementary school, before going on to study art, art history, world culture and philosophy at Bard College. Despite his studies, he never stopped taking pictures; he also began making short films. After graduating from college in 1962, his interest in film led him to Paris, where he attended film school.

His time in the City of Light was short-lived, however, and he was soon off travelling through Europe, Egypt, Japan, India and Mexico, before settling in Stockholm, Sweden, where he started to work as a photographer at the Museum of Ethnography [Etnografiska Museet]. The summer of 1964 in San Francisco was to prove to be a year of global significance for the city, thanks to the socio-political historic culture clash of the 28th Republican National Convention and the launch of the Beatles’ first North American tour.

In the midst of the excitement, a young photographer new to the city was snapping pictures: not of the politicians or musicians, but of the people in the crowds and on the streets. It was the perfect environment for a photographer eager to create images, and Tress was there. He made more than 900 negatives in San Francisco, during the spring and summer of 1964: images which are among his earliest and – until this book – least seen documentary work. Through his juxtapositions of the mundane and the absurd, Tress captured the chaos of civil rights demonstrations and political rallies, the idiosyncratic moments of San Francisco’s locals, the peculiar contents of shop windows and the graphic clash of signage. He was a long way from his work at the Stockholm museum, and he was in his element.

Tress developed and printed his black-and-white negatives in a communal darkroom in the city’s Castro District before leaving San Francisco in the autumn of 1964 to return to Stockholm. The vintage prints were packed away in his sister’s house and Tress forgot about them. In 1968 he moved back to New York, fully committed to becoming a full-time professional, and began working as a documentary photographer. Tress soon became known for the work he created in New York, and throughout the 1970s and ’80s he became well known for his strikingly surreal photographs and staged photographic situations: such as a man opening the trunk of his car and finding sleeping children; another man, naked, with his head in a bucket and a boot on his back.

This was the work for which Tress was recognised; work that defined his imagemaking vision through books, museums and gallery shows. Then in 2009, after his sister died, Tress was cleaning out her San Francisco house when he found a box of 25 mounted photographs from a show he had done in California, 45 years previously. “I was thrilled to find them again,” says Tress, now 71 and living in Cambria, California. He still had the contact sheets buried in his archive, but no prints of the images.

The rediscovery of this forgotten body of work inspired him to revisit his early negatives and create new prints. Excited by the work, he took the prints to James Ganz; a curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “It was one of those memorable moments in my career,” recalls Ganz. “A light bulb went off and I instantly knew that this was significant work.” Ganz set about organising Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 – a 70-image show which was the precursor to this book.

Taken when Tress was only 23, the images, shot with a square-format Rolleiflex as he wandered the streets, are informed by the work of fellow photographers such as Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and William Klein, while also echoing the documentation of Americana created by William Eggleston and Ed Ruscha. Despite these observations, given the benefit of hindsight, Tress says: “There was an innocence in the work, and in the time. It was just before things got crazy in San Francisco.” He has his own phrase for the atmosphere that was in the air in the San Francisco of 1964, in his work and the world at large: “an incipient strangeness”. And that is the feeling that these images have when seen in book form.

They provide a disjointed narrative; an eager young eye taking in the changing world around it. There is no apparent link that brings together these images. There is no theme, other than that of the year, the city and, of course, the photographer. Fresh, wide eyed and filled with optimism, these images express a time in history often seen through the eyes of the hardened newspaper photographers and newsreel journalists. Tress was seeing something different, and for this we must thank him – and his sister for never clearing out the loft.

Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964
Arthur Tress and James A. Ganz
Prestel Publishing. £29.99
ISBN-13: 978-3791351629

© Grant Scott 2012

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