In the late 1960's and throughout 1970's, New York City-based photographer Arthur Tress interviewed children about their nightmares, and would then collaborate with them to recreate their dreams into photographs in a safe, staged setting.
These wondrous, surrealistic and sometimes disturbing dreamscapes were all created between 1968-1977.
Hopefully, this helped many of the children overcome the nightmares that they were having, because they could see that they were perfectly safe during the entire length of the experience.
This is also something that other children like doing when they go to the beach. Bury me in sand! Your kid is always asking. But usually, they're not wearing sweatshirts and their Mickey hats, because that would be a weird thing to wear at the beach and when you want to get buried in sand. Ugh. So then this just gets a little more morbid. We're going to say no when we're at the beach the next time.
“The best memories from creating the dream collector series were always those flashes of sudden transformation, when an ordinary daily scene changed into a magical dream like event...when the everyday happening slides into another realm of awareness,” Tress said.
We would agree with him. He obviously knows what he's doing and knows just the right way to capture an image to create that dream-like, spooky state. You're doing it, and you're doing it good.
For example the famous photo 'Flood Dream' Ocean City, New Jersey, 1970, where the roof of a building was just lying abandoned on an empty pier. In the far background there was a decrepit ferryboat hauled onto the dock waiting to be restored. Out of nowhere, a young boy with a round face and blond hair of about ten came riding by on a small bike," Tress starts telling the story of this picture.
"I asked if he would stand beneath the roof where it had a gaping hole in it. He was glad to do it and just looked peacefully at the camera. And it was one of those strange moments that moves the ordinary into a special archetypical space," Tress continued. This is the trademark of the work that Tress does, where ordinary things become a little more than that with just a few moves.
It ran concurrently with a large blockbuster exhibition of Jean Paul Gaultier that brought lots of crowds into the museum and some actually drifted into my gallery space,” he says. “The gallery was always full of people actually looking at the pictures slowly and discussing them with their friends. They seemed intrigued and stimulated by the strange Tressian combination of the surreal within the documentary.”
Not long after the gallery, the Getty requested 85 of his prints.
"It reinforced my feelings that a lifetime’s devotion to creating a disciplined body of work was a worthwhile endeavor and, although the monetary rewards have been very small, the sense that I have actually made something wonderful and lasting gave me a great renewed pride in myself for having done all this alone and without much help for over 55 years."
Tress also described how he worked his project into being.
"Dreams or nightmares were collected by conversations with children in schools, streets, or neighbourhood playgrounds. The children would be asked means of acting out their visions or to suggest ways of making them into visual actualities… These inventions often reflect the child’s inner life, his hopes and fears, as well as his symbolic transmutation of the external environment, his home or school, into manageable forms."
"The children would be asked means of acting out their visions or to suggest ways of making them into visual actualities,” Tress said. “Often the location itself, such as an automobile graveyard or abandoned merry-go-round, would provide the possibility of dreamlike themes and spontaneous improvisation to the photographer and his subjects."
We're actually currently scared by this picture, so whichever child who dreamed this up is very justified in doing so.
According to the artist's statement, "These inventions often reflect the child's inner life, his hopes and fears, as well as his symbolic transmutation of the external environment, his home or school, into manageable forms." I think it's fair to say that these transmutations reflect Mr. Tress's inner life, as well.
His photo book, "The Dream Collector," was published in 1973. But because of the haunting images, people still enjoy the work today.
"In recreating these fantasies there is often a combination of actual dream, mythical archetypes, fairytale, horror movie, comic hook, and imaginative play. These inventions often reflect the child’s inner life, his hopes and fears…” Tress also explained of his work. This little boy is trapped inside the television, which seems like a fate that wouldn't be too terrible. But it also looks like he's defending himself, which is a scary thought. What show is he trapped in?
"There’s a problem of the older photographer – I’ve been photographing since I was 15 – you can get burned out, or you can get stuck in certain formulas. I saw a Dorothea Lange show at the Oakland Museum, and I bought the catalog. She says that, as she became an older photographer, she kept on photographing the same way: she traveled extensively – Bali, Japan – and photographed people’s hands everywhere she went. It was hard for her to get out of her ingrained way of making images. I’ve had a strategy to avoid that," Tress said when explaining how he keeps the spark alive in his work.
"I’ll push myself to complete a series, because sometimes when you get to the end of your rope, you can go beyond and actually invent something new – something you hadn’t seen before. Too often people give up too soon. But at some point, after two or three years, I’ll either take two steps backwards and return to some earlier style, or I’ll go on to something new," he continued to explain about letting the work go on.
"f you’re making the work in a studio, constructing every aspect of it, your vision comes from within. If you’re out there in the world, taking what it throws at you and reacting to it like Cartier-Bresson, there’s an element of surprise, and you’re in a reactive frame of mind. In still lifes, the element of surprise is there, but it’s different: You move things around and look at the ground glass, and get surprised, but you’re in control of the clock. The two approaches feel different, don’t they?" Tress said.
"There is always a tension between craft and concept. I try to balance the two. Even though my technique is very simple – I’ve used one camera with two lenses and one film for forty years – I don’t believe in over-printing a photograph. I don’t believe in a photograph as precious object. I think the photograph should be well-designed. The lights and darks should convey the emotional quality of the print. I don’t get overly involved in the craft process."