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Tress shreds

17 January, 2011


I just got back from Los Angeles where I had dinner with Arthur Tress at I Cugini in Santa Monica. His new book Skate Park has just been published by Birch Books and it’s stunning. Arthur told me he took many of the pictures from the bottom of a bowl in a suburban skate park, and while they are formally quite beautiful, they also give a strong feeling of being immersed in the action. The hardest thing was learning to anticipate a skater’s approach by sound, and quickly get out of the way.  For a 70-year-old man, it’s an impressive feat.

Arthur is working on a new project of photographs taken of Morro Rock, an island on the coast near his home in San Luis Obispo California. The pictures were inspired by Hiroshige’s Hundred Famous Views of Mount Edo, and they have the same quality of using the prominent landform to anchor a variety of views of people and animals living and working around it. Arthur has been collecting Japanese woodblocks since the 1960s and recalled giving a particular book to Henri Cartier-Bresson years ago. Cartier-Bresson loved it because the pictures were so experiential, and this was the same kind of thing he was interested in capturing with his camera. He always remembered Arthur for giving it to him.

We talked about Arthur’s early career too, and the male nudes he published in the book Arthur Tress: Facing Up, A 12-Year Survey in 1980 (it was published a little earlier in Europe). He only made one female nude in his entire career, an image of Twinka Thiebaud, Wayne Thiebaud’s daughter, which appears as the frontispiece in the recent book Naked: The Nude in America, by Bram Dijkstra. Although Arthur is rightly celebrated for his homoerotic nudes, he told me he was “a wall flower in the bathhouse scene,” and at times felt strangely alien to gay culture. Compared to Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, whom he knew and who celebrated gay culture, Arthur says he felt a little repulsed by the scene and his earliest pictures reflect his ambivalence about it. Later when he realized people preferred to see more positive images he lightened the tone a great deal and some of the nudes he is best known for were made after he decided to changed gears.

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