Portfolio: Arthur Tress

Arthur Tress’s photographs of school life adjourned

Arthur Tress, Shell Beach Elementary School, Shell Beach, Ca., 2020, digital scan of 120 mm photograph.

ARTHUR TRESS, PRESENT. At the onset of the US lockdown in March 2020, the San Francisco–based photographer Arthur Tress began to chronicle the closed buildings, deserted playgrounds, and overgrown yards of nearby schools in Northern California. Seventeen months later, the resulting series, introduced here and titled “In Recess,” consists of more than 15,000 black-and-white photographs of 125 elementary, middle, and high schools, from Bodega Bay to Pismo Beach. Devoid of children playing hopscotch, spreading gossip, and gobbling down snacks, his eerie pictures, oscillating in affect between the heartfelt and the deadpan, are tenacious yet ambiguous attempts to grapple with the manifold reconfigurations of life in quarantine.

Best known for The Dream Collector (1972), a book of surrealist portraits in which kids’ worst nightmares (some school-related) were recreated in spellbinding detail for the camera, Tress, now eighty, has long been preoccupied with child psychology, institutional power, and modern architectural ruins. While these themes pervade “In Recess,” over the past two decades he has drifted away from the staged nature of his pioneering if then unfashionable early style, now using his analog Hasselblad to document the oddness inherent to the everyday with minimal direction or embellishment. Parallel to this shift, he has played with the medium’s conventions by photographing at a 45-degree angle in such a way that evokes the dynamic diamond compositions of Piet Mondrian. No other major photographer has exclusively embraced this shape for such a long period. Besides lending itself to modernist abstractions of contemporary life, as in Mondrian’s unfinished valedictory opus Victory Boogie-Woogie (1942–44), the lozenge format produces a sense of vertigo which amplifies the disquieting strangeness of the static swing sets, lined-up track hurdles, and toppled safety alert signs that furnish “In Recess.”

Injecting a wistful lyricism into the typological photographic tradition of Hilla and Bernd Becher, Tress fixated on the spaces, objects, and activities that characterize schools in the region. In doing so, he discovered that each institution had something special: spectacular midcentury architecture, a mural, an ocean vista, a poetic Black Lives Matter sign. “In Recess” came to an end with the reopening of most of the state’s schools in August 2021. In their relentless cataloguing of suspended play, Tress’s new pictures refuse easy entry or closure, suggesting instead that our traumas from the pandemic, like those from our childhoods, have something more to teach us.