Finding the unexpected

Arthur Tress used the term for what occurs when solid things start to melt when titling his photo ‘The Deliquescence of Elliott.'
Arthur Tress used the term for what occurs when solid things start to melt when titling his photo ‘The Deliquescence of Elliott.'

As Arthur Tress drives around seeking suitable scenes to shoot, he has to force himself to get out of the car on foggy or windy days. He does, though, and said he’s always rewarded.

It’s a gift to find the unexpected, said the master photographer whose work is exhibited in museums nationwide.

“Icons,’’ his current exhibit at Ian Saude Gallery in San Luis Obispo, features figurative work from his “Skate Park” series and book. Shot on the Central Coast, the images are primarily abstracts, the skateboarders often revealed via shadows, blurs, or silhouette, with calligraphic etched lines from skate wheels.

The show also includes a smattering of shots from previous decades, some from Tress’ “Dream Collector” series.

Born in New York in 1940, Tress still relishes living in Cambria, where he relocated 20 years ago. He began taking photos when he was 12.

“I was a child prodigy,” Tress said, as he’d capture the freaks and scenes of his Coney Island environs.

After nearly 60 years, showing a cross selection of his vast oeuvre would be a major undertaking, although the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C., held a Tress retrospective in 2001.

Tress moves as swiftly as the skateboarders in zooming into projects. He’s now doing a series of Morro Rock.

“The Rock is just in the background,” he said, noting that the series is a nod to Japanese artist Hokusai’s 36 views of Mount Fuji.

When he was in his mid-20s, Tress studied gardening and flower arrangement in the Zen Study Center in Japan — studies that still influence him in portraying the Rock. “The photos are very simple.”

Before he left for Kyoto, he spent the summer of 1964 in San Francisco, taking hundreds of photos.

“It was a time of cultural change,” Tress said. “The beats had already left but the summer of love was not until 1967.”

Last year, while going through his sister’s estate, Tress found the 45-year-old proof sheets and made some prints. Of the 1,200 photos, 64 will be in a solo exhibit at San Francisco’s de Young Museum next March, on the walls where Picasso’s work now hangs.

Tress is elated by the honor.

“They’re doing an actual book, not just a catalog,” he said. The book will be available in the museum’s gift shop.

Exhibit Curator James Ganz calls the images by the then 23-year-old Tress “brilliant” and the theme, as in Tress’ other works, an “intersection of the absurd and the mundane.”

The pictures are not ordinary street shots, said Tress. “They’re a little surreal, because that’s always been a little flavor of my work.”

He was inspired early on by Diane Arbus, whose dark work captured the teenage Tress as he pored over art books in New York’s pub lic library. He also admires Robert Mapplethorpe’s bizarre photos.

A world traveler who has studied shamans in primitive cultures, Tress works his own magic with his imaginative photos.

Although Tress has staged dreamlike scenes in the past, and often does set-up photos, “I never have done any manipulation,” he said. He has shot in color, but most of his work is in black and white.

His photos are in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

And now, in Ian Saude’s gallery in downtown San Luis Obispo.