Posted by: facetothewind | August 11, 2011

Flying lessons from a master: my week with Arthur Tress

If you had asked me a couple months ago who the greatest living photographers are, I wouldn’t have hesitated to include the name Arthur Tress on my list. I first became acquainted with his work in 1999 when my friend Habib showed me a photography book of his titled Male of the Species. I remember looking through it in awe of his work as the pages of black and white photos provided a glimpse into the mind of a slightly tortured artist. I could relate.

Fast forward to a gay pride weekend party in San Francisco that I just stopped into briefly with a friend. There I met an elderly gentleman who seemed eager to chat with new arrivals. He asked me what I do, “Oh I’m a photographer among many things.” “Really, I am too, my name’s Arthur,” he replied with a smile. Arthur. Arthur. My mind clicked away. I had never seen his face, but I knew he was circulating about San Francisco from time to time, because my friend Richard had met him at the house where he stays on occasion. “You wouldn’t happen to be Arthur Tress would you?” “Why yes, that’s me!” I screamed like a little girl on the inside. I had met one of my muses completely by accident and delivered a more composed version of my enthusiasm in the form of, “Oh, well, I’ve always admired your work. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He seemed delighted that someone knew him by name, if not by face. Before we go further, take a look at some of  his photos by  clicking here. Here is his most famous image. It’s called Flood Dreams…

The rest of the party that evening receded into silence as we launched into “photo speak,” talking about his work, his camera, his books. I told him that in fact I happened to have shared space in a phototography book with him once when I had 2 photos published in a book called Male Bonding Volume 2. He didn’t seem that impressed but I didn’t care, I was more interested in hearing about his book Skate Park and talking about his illustrious career than my languishing one. We left the party passing a self-absorbed young photographer I know from Portland whose works involve photographing himself in a dress in nature. He took no notice of Arthur which was fine by me. I didn’t have to share him with anyone as I walked him through the Gay Pride madness of the Castro to his car. Out of his trunk he pulled his Hasselblad camera and a copy of Skate Park. We sat on the stoop of his friend’s house and flipped through the pages. He let me hold the Hasselblad. I felt as if I were holding the sorcerer’s magic wand. I went home with his business card glowing in my back pocket.

Shortly thereafter we began emailing each other about some attempts to reunite. He invited me to visit him on the central coast of California where he lives. I was flattered by the invitation but couldn’t see myself going to visit as I figured he would be a tyrannical aesthete, bossing me around, but I was flattered that he invited me. And then a sudden hole in my summer travel plans opened, freeing up a week I would have spent in Portland feeling like an outcast in the social scene. So I sent Arthur an email asking him if the offer to come visit was still good. It was and so I changed my plans and headed south on the overnight train to Paso Robles where he picked me up.

Still coming up from a Xanax haze and a sleepless night on the train, we sat in a Japanese restaurant at the train station eating sushi and indulging in more photo speak. Here is a shot I got of Arthur sitting on the edge of a hot tub where he just finished photographing me. Photographing ME!?? Yes, within in an hour of arriving in Paso Robles, Arthur had pulled out that famous Hasselblad and turned the lens toward me. I had to cloak my giddy nervousness. I thought of all the beautiful and famous men who have appeared before that clunky hunk of Swedish glass and metal in his hands.

“Now Dave, put all the noodles in the middle of the pool and I want you to go underneath them and come up with your hands by your head and give a look of joy as you’re emerging. Cachunk, zip. Cachunk zip went the old workhorse camera as Arthur burned through a couple of rolls of film. Below is a shot that he captured with my digital camera. I have yet to see what he got on film with his. I was astonished at how little I had to show him on my camera even though he’s hardly ever used a digital. My instinct was to say, “OK, now don’t back up and make sure you get the subject in focus and don’t drop it in the pool,” as I have told so many people who take my camera from my hands. Of course he didn’t need any of that advice. He just needed to know which was the right button to press. And here’s what he did…

After a couple of hours of frolicking in hot water, we returned to his house in Cambria overlooking the ocean. There I took charge of the kitchen, cooking and sharing meals with him while discussing artists and photographers like Duane Michels, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, the German Expressionism, the Abstract Expressionists, Rauschenberg, Franz Marc, Chagall, El Greco, Jeff Koons, Sigmar Polke, etc.  We flipped through piles of his photo books talking about each model page by page, did yoga in the morning, hikes in the afternoon. We went swimming together like a couple of kids in wetsuits in Morro Bay. It was both stimulating and relaxing.

At age 70, Arthur is amazingly active and agile. He photographs and exercises every day. He swims and hikes and kayaks and shows no signs of becoming forgetful or irrelevant in conversation. At least not from the perspective of someone 23 years younger. Here’s a little video I made of our week’s adventures…

Arthur asked me if I could help him with some of his photo projects and of course I was honored to lend some assistance. He was in the process of selecting photos for a show of his work at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco coming up in March, 2012. So he put me to work selecting which custom print of each negative was the best. Pretty quickly, he recognized that I had the eye to notice subtle details and tonal shifts from print to print. “Here the dodging is more pronounced and the highlights are burned out, don’t you agree?” I would venture. He agreed with nearly all my comments and choices and then packaged up the chosen prints and FedExed them off to the curator. Here’s a shot I took of his show laid out on his studio floor with the mad scientist orchestrating it from the control desk…

During the course of the week we kept pointing our cameras at each other and so here are some of the portraits I got of him…

Like Arthur, I grew up with a camera in my hands and so I have decades of shooting and lab time under my belt. We speak the same language of light and composition, though our styles differ immensely. Arthur is a surrealist, I am a realist. Arthur is more of an artist and I’m more of a documentarian. He orchestrates dreams, fantasies, and nightmares. I capture moments without manipulating the subject matter or scene. Still, it was a great meeting of the minds. He liked this portrait (below) so much, he printed it, asked me to sign it and then framed and hung it on the wall in a place of honor: by the kitchen entrance.

I was pleasantly surprised to find him so generous with his praise of my work. My fears of being bullied by an artistic tyrant were completely unfounded. In fact, he had a very light touch and mostly teaches by example or suggestion. Perhaps that’s just with me. (I do have 35 years of photography under my belt.) Still, I don’t think I’ll ever feel on equal footing with this great magician of the printed image, but by the week’s end, I didn’t feel like I had nothing to contribute to him.

I went to Cambria perhaps to learn to fly, only to discover that I already knew how. I just needed a little admiration and praise — some encouragement to keep creating. And maybe what I could contribute to this master of surrealism was more about the realism of friendship from a kindred spirit of the eye.



  1. Beautiful writing, beautiful pics.

  2. I’m in awe…. touched by your story, photography (especially the image of Arthur’s head and hands lying in the sand) and by the rich experiences you create and share… Thank you! Patricia

  3. Oh David,
    I just felt joyful and happy throughout your essay on your experiences with Arthur…your willingness to change plans, follow a lead, sense toward wholeness…wow…I feel like there are many jewels in the treasure of this experience, and some will continue to become unburied as time goes by…again…WOW!

  4. A heart-warming and uplifting story arising from a chance meeting with Arthur–thank you, David! and carry on with your wonderful work!

  5. Dear David,
    I’m full of happiness for you right now. To have found not only a mentor but also a new friend! You are so lucky, or maybe you just deserved to meet this man by chance and hit it off with him, because of your devotion to photography for so many years. When the student is ready, the teacher appears, right? (So when do I run into Kate Millet or Ann Tyler at a party? I guess it’d help if I went to more parties.)

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