Arthur Tress’s New York City (1969–70)

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Open Space in the Inner City: Ecology and the Urban Environment

At a recent auction we uncovered a wonderful specimen of NYC history — the exhibit portfolio of black & white photographs taken by Arthur Tress and produced by the Visual Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts in 1971. Arthur has a fascinating story from his birth in 1940 in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn to his world travels and personal discovery, all before his 30th birthday. His early life experiences shaped the view of the world that he would continuously capture through the camera that he always had by his side as he focused his lens on everyday lives and cityscapes in somber and surreal tones.

Open Space in the Inner City — a portfolio of photographs by Arthur Tress published in 1971
Photography is my method for defining the confusing world that rushes constantly toward me. It is my defensive attempt to reduce our daily chaos to a set of understandable images. — Arthur Tress

On November 24th, 1940 in a lower class Jewish neighborhood, Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn, New York, Arthur Tress was born. He grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of 4 children, with divorced parents. Arthur took his first photographs in elementary school in 1952. He was a lonely child who was confused about his sexuality and was often bullied at school.

Arthur spent most of his free time photographing in abandoned amusement parks and boardwalks on Coney Island. He had a natural instinct for photography and his work was very precocious. Tress graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Coney Island in 1958. He attended Bard College for 4 years and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in 1962. After graduation, Tress moved to Paris, France to attend film school. Travels through Europe, Egypt, Japan, India, Africa, and Mexico helped hone his skills. He observed many tribes and cultures and was fascinated by the shaman (medicine man) of each tribe. These observations influenced his work in his later life-including the various ‘tribes’ he found throughout the five boroughs.

In 1968 Tress moved back to New York to become a professional photographer. His first exhibition, “Appalachia — People and Places” was held at the Smithsonian Institute and the Sierra Gallery. He was sent to photograph folk art and objects of Appalachia but could not ignore recording the poverty of the people.

Shortly thereafter, in 1970 he exhibited his series “Open Spaces in the Inner City” the feature of this unbound portfolio. This project consisted of finding potential recreational areas in the urban environment where small parks could be made….vacant lots, abandoned industrial waterfronts, and rooftops. The New York Council on the Arts made boxed portfolios containing 50 plates of Arthur’s photographs in an edition of 1,000. In order to show the decay and pollution in the city, he would take something out of natural context and create dissonance to convey a surrealistic image. These portfolios were used as discussion topics in schools and libraries.

I believe it is the photographer’s function to reveal that which is concealed, even if it is repugnant to the majority, not merely record what we see around us.— Arthur Tress

If you are interested in learning more about Arthur Tress, someone that we are surprised has not received more attention for his moving images, we encourage you to watch several videos (Tresspassing: American Photographer Arthur Tress, Documentary on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2) that provide a first-hand look into his mind, his life and his work.

Below is a selection of our favorite photographs from the collection.

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