Cambrian: Arts & Events

Q&A: Acclaimed photographer, former Cambria resident reflects on fame, evolution of art

“Girl on Stairs With Mask”
“Girl on Stairs With Mask” Courtesy photo

I am an artist and I’ve been working...

Lately, nearly every moment in our civilized existence feels like an inescapable dichotomy of conflict in one form or another, and yet we thrive.

For some, this state is dreamlike, a blurring of lines between global news and our personal lives.

This contemplation led me to reexamine the masterful works of a former Cambria resident who now lives a life full of well-deserved accolades in San Francisco.

Although much has been written about him, some may remember Arthur Tress from his 25 years of living in Cambria as a colorful, talented and engaging photographer whose provocative art stimulates the imagination including collections such as a dream state series in “Arthur Tress Dream Collector” (collection compiled in 1972; text by John Minahan).

The introduction says it all: “Enter the world of dreams... the world of children. Bizarre, touching, frightening, exotic, beautiful. ... No world is more fascinating. Who has not been frightened by a nightmare, haunted by a midnight vision, inspired by a dream? ... Arthur Tress is a collector. He recreates dreams — then captures them with his camera. Then he shares them with us.”

Tress Boy in Flood Dream.jpg
“Boy on Roof in Flood” Arthur Tress Courtesy photo

This is why and how the photography of Arthur Tress has remained relevant in today’s world of uncertainty.

A few notes gleaned from the biography on his website gives us an indication of the evolution that would capture classic American imagery.

“Arthur Tress was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1940. He began his first camera work as a teenager in the surreal neighborhood of Coney Island where he spent hours exploring the decaying amusement parks. Later, during five years of world travel, mostly in Asia and Africa, he developed an interest in ethnographical photography that eventually led him to his first professional assignment as a U.S. government photographer recording the endangered folk cultures of Appalachia. Seeing the destructive results of corporate resource extraction, Tress began to use his camera to raise environmental awareness about the economic and human costs of pollution. Focusing on New York City, he began to photograph the neglected fringes of the urban waterfront with a straight documentary approach. This elements of actual life with stage fantasy that became his hallmark style of directorial fabrication.”

Gelatin silver prints by Tress have become a valuable commodity. One subject, “Girl With Mask on Stairs” is still available at The Vault Gallery in Cambria. Proprietor Laylon Whittaker, who enjoyed a long friendship with the artist, commented on this haunting piece saying, “I wish I could continue to show and sell Arthur’s works, but his archives have been placed with institutional collections.”

In conversation with the artist, he fondly recalls his many afternoon chats with Ms. Whittaker, saying she helped him “adjust to small-town living.”

A recent book on the photography of Tress by Tim Sotor, “ForTress,” has several intimate observations that bring the artist to life through the genuine and unique friendship they built over the years. Exposing the artist’s vulnerability and “wry sense of comedy” (“I’m not a spring chicken, I’m a fall pigeon”), the narrative spans literary predilections (“I was reading a Russian constructivist book and came across a quote ‘The rhythm of chaos...’’) and discipline (taking photos nearly every single day), as well as the genesis of the dark, yet playful images he captures on film. As Sotor explains, an examination of the man behind the camera “encourages us to look more closely at how we face and follow our own obsessions.”

In conversation with the artist, I found that not only is the work collected by highly regarded institutions such as the Stanford Libraries, The Getty, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he has kept all of his original negatives as well as documentation of each year’s works, thus accumulating an impressive archive spanning nearly sixty years. Tress recommends that every artist keep careful records and develop a personal archive.

Still actively working today with his favorite tools and Hasselblad camera, he will be showcased in an upcoming group exhibit at SFMOMA from July 20 to Dec. 1, whose theme: “Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes” includes several renown photographers who “break the rules.” One broken rule (photographers capturing their own shadow) seems to have piqued the interest of curators at SFMOMA because they purchased 100 of his “shadow prints” from 1975.

I asked the artist a few questions that shed a bit more light on his decision-making and process. His straightforward responses were illuminating.

Q&A with Arthur Tress

Q: Do you ever feel constrained by your acclaim as an artist or do you experience freedom as a result of it?

A: Yes and no. Most institutions and collectors are interested in my work from New York during 1960-1993. I did lots of documentary work, then moved into staged photography in 1970. That gave me my historic niche. During those years, there were a lot of street photos being done. I decided to arrange shots dramatically. My first foray into this style was the “Dreams” series — very dramatic, reaching strong emotional levels. When moved to Cambria, I became interested in nature studies, Buddhist themes, images of light and shade. I changed some during that period, and am still doing it. “You become famous in the art world for one thing. And that’s it.” Acclaim allows me to move from one fascination to the next.

Q: Do you anticipate the visceral reaction during the composition?

A: No. Rising curators see the provocative as a means to marketing what I do. Newer images include the Cayucos skate park — blurry, spontaneous and intuitive. However, I do keep detailed notebooks to record the history and visual relationships of the shots. For the photo “Flying Dream” I wanted to illustrate what it looks like to fly, so I wandered around, found a baseball backstop, arranged to make my subjects appear to fly. It was improvised, spontaneous. People respond to these with their own memories. I don’t contrive to be flashy.

Boys Flying.jpg
“Flying Dream” Arthur Tress Courtesy photo

Q: Congratulations of the purchase of your archives by the Stanford Libraries. What does that involve?

A: Stanford has the Cantor Museum and a big collection (1000s) of contemporary photos. Recently, the Rare Books Division decided to acquire photography as well. They found donors and bought 25,000 prints. Some will be going to different museums (i.e., Princeton and Yale). This does not mean my photos are taken off the market. I can still work with Stanford on that.

Q: Will there be a retrospective?

A: Well, I had a great one! “Fantastic Voyage (1956 – 2000)” was put together with 250 images and shown at the Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C. in 2001. That collection includes lots of color, too. I hope Laylon (at the Vault Gallery) still has a copy. I’m also preparing for an exhibition at the Getty Museum in 2022.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Arthur Tress. In addition to his mad skills, his disarming approachability and common-sense perspective is refreshing for an artist of great acclaim. Trends shift, conflicts persist and dreams emerge constantly. It’s good to know that the compendium of masterworks by Arthur Tress continue to fascinate, intrigue and provoke dialogue that remains as relevant today as when the images were initially conceived.

Upcoming events

Through July 28

“Entanglements II, Current Considerations in Fiber”

Cambria Center for the Arts

1350 Main St., Cambria


Through July 28

“Elaine Badgley–Arnoux: Selections from the Permanent Collection”

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

1010 Broad St., San Luis Obispo


Through Dec. 1

“Don’t! Photography and the Art of Mistakes”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., San Francisco


Patrick Dennis is an artist living in Cambria, CA. He owns Working Artist Studio/Patrick Gallery in the West Village and a very large dog named Bella. For more information, visit