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The Staged Surrealism of Arthur Tress

A Parallel Planets piece by Joy Celine Asto
If photography isn't the first thing you think about when it comes to strange, eerie, and macabre tales, I'm sure that the works of Arthur Tress will change that. Hailed as a master of staged surrealism, the American photographer took an impressive collection of classic photos that explore and play on the weird -- and sometimes sinister -- imagery that the mind conjures when it dreams.


Perhaps, like many people who come across his work, I find myself most drawn to one of his older series, exhibited at a show called "Daymares" (I'm sure the title alone still sparks curiosity to this day) in 1972. Taken around the late 1960s to early 1970s, the surreal monochromes were inspired by the dreams -- nightmares, to be precise -- of the children he met during a workshop he did with childhood educator Richard Lewis. The California-based photographer detailed the catalyst for his seminal work with the gothamist over a phone call:

"Every year he has a different theme, and one year he did children's dreams, to get kids to write poems and paintings from their dreams. So he called me in to photograph his class. So I said, you know, that's a terrific idea, and I'm going to pursue that by asking children and my friends what dreams they remembered from childhood."

However, Arthur also knew that his visions and the images that he wanted -- "mythological, archetypical, kind of nightmarish images," he said -- couldn't be found by just walking around. So, he began doing what would be his trademark for the next 20 years: staged photography, which he also mentioned was unusual as people were doing street photography at the time. He took note of the children's nightmares and proceeded to recreating them in safe locations, effectively immortalizing each grisly story in visually striking black and white snaps.

Looking at Arthur's work, I am reminded of my own eerie dreams --  of the weird mixes I get in one sleep, the violent ones that jolt me awake in the ungodliest of hours, and the ones where I only remember the heavy feeling but not the actual dream itself. I look at "Hand on Train," for example, and I get a flashback to a creepy dream of a severed, gloved hand floating before me, beckoning me rather ominously to step out of my room to wake up from the nightmare.


Many of these fascinating photographs are filed under his Classic Images, but I feel that what makes them timeless is not only the fact that they've defined his career. Rather, it's how each of these dreams continue to be strikingly haunting more than 40 years later.

If only I could sit down with him and tell him about the nightmares that have plagued my sleepless nights -- and have him recreate them in his signature style, of course -- that would be immensely interesting.

Visit Arthur Tress'  Official Website to see more his work.

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