Retrospective on surrealist photography pioneer Arthur Tress in Thessaloniki

By Harry van Versendaal

A retrospective on the Brooklyn-born photographer Arthur Tress, currently on display at the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, reveals the endurance and simultaneous freshness of the 73-year-old artist’s surrealist oeuvre that puts him among the masters of 20th century photography.

The exhibition, a selection of 145 images taken between 1956 and 2006, was organized in collaboration with Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse and Contrejour publications, and forms part of the museum’s “Great Masters” series.

“His work is an excellent combination of the realistic and fictional aspects of photography,” Vangelis Ioakimidis, the energetic director of the Museum of Photography Thessaloniki, told Kathimerini English Edition, noting that this is the first time the images are being shown in Greece.

Tress’s early forays at the Whitney, where learned about the surrealist paintings of artists such as Magritte and Dali, influenced his vision – as did his later traveling (which also kept him from being drafted for the war in Vietnam).

He started out as a street photographer, shooting in the heart of New York as well as the suburbs – the grey zones near the bridges that connect Brooklyn to Manhattan. Using a 2 1/4 square format, either a Rolleiflex or Hasselblad, Tress soon veered into more experimental territory with dreamlike staged and sometimes manipulated compositions: A boy claws his way out of the ground with hands made of tree roots; a grim woman in sunglasses sits next to a coin-operated binoculars at Coit Tower; a young man irons the arm of his terminally ill mother.

Who Tress is – a gay Jew – naturally influenced his work. Operating from a state of “melancholic alienation,” as he put it, his clicking often became political.

“As with many photographers of my generation, I saw the camera as a means of social satire and commentary with the goal of them becoming mechanisms for political change,” Tress said in a 2012 interview.

“I was inspired by the work of the photographers of the ‘social landscape’ – Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Danny Lyon – who used their cameras as media weapons to expose injustice and inequality.”

Tress’s photographs have been shown worldwide and many of his works are housed in permanent collections, including those at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. He has published more than 25 monographs – some of them on display at the redbrick seaside structure that houses Thessaloniki’s Photography Museum – while his archive includes more than 700,000 negatives. Tress still works as a professional photographer today.

The Tress retrospective wraps up the museum’s “Great Masters” cycle which was launched in 2007 and has featured photography giants such as Duane Michals, Bernard Plossu, Andre Kertesz and Joel Meyerowitz.

The exhibition runs until the end of March.

Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, Warehouse A, Port Complex, tel. 2310.566.716, http://www.thmphoto.gr

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