Arthur Tress: Inside the mind of the “Dream Collector”

Dreams have been fueling art and creative work since time immemorial. As mirrors of the subconscious mind, they take us to worlds that are stranger yet more mesmerizing than our waking life.

Tapping into these imaginary realms often leads to visually arresting alternate scenes that prove perfect for otherworldly art. When it comes to surreal photography, Brooklyn-born Arthur Tress and his iconic “Dream Collector” series sit high up on the list.

Discovering Tress and this particular series a few years ago was a major creative influence for me. As someone who encounters weird dreams regularly, I’ve always been curious about how I can use them as inspiration for my own work. While not an entirely new concept, I find it interesting because dreams are filled with details and emotions that tend to be specific to each person. Add to this fact that creative minds process and use information and inspiration differently, and you have great opportunities to create compiling work.

Tress began his photography career in the early 1960s, but it was a “Dream Collector” from the early 1970s that cemented his art and style. It showed us a strikingly different way to look at the world — including the alternate reality that the subconscious mind crafts for us.

Built on folklore and rituals

Tress originally started his career with photographing tribal people. For his first job, he took photos of African tribes for a book company in Sweden. Later, he would also visit the Mayan Indians, the Eskimos and the Toda People in India, and find it very interesting that Indigenous people were still around in the 1960s. He would also write little stories to go with his photos. All these eventually laid the groundwork for the head space that became instrumental to his surrealist work.

“I did a lot of studies of the myths and fairy tales, and ceremonies and rituals of tribal people. You could call that surrealist in a way because tribal people live have a different mental attitude toward reality and time, interaction of the ancestors, the underworld and the sky people,” he shared in our Zoom interview. “There’s always a flow between the different levels of reality. So, I kind of got into my head, from living with these people. It gave me that attitude that what is around us is kind of eternal.”

Later, he began his first major book project titled “Open Space in the Inner City,” which delved on New York City’s pollution and other environmental conditions. In the process, he also ended up photographing the children who would come down and play on the edge of the waterfront.

“So, I began staging and directing the children to act out their fantasies. And just one day, I just got the idea of ​​doing a project on children’s dreams. I read a lot of books on dreams and I would talk to children, but also my own friends. I asked them any dreams that they remembered from childhood. I would make long lists of all these dreams: Flying, falling, being chased by monsters. Then, I would just wander around the city, waiting for the circumstances to make these dreams come alive.”

With it, he arrived at the idea of ​​combining his environmental photography with his sense of the primitive tribal attitude. He also came up with a fitting label for this striking style: Social surrealism.

His foray into the strange and wonderful world of surrealist imagery was actually unusual for the time. “Everyone else — Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank — were all doing street photography,” Tress noted. “But I took it one step further.”

But there was also some sort of rebellion against street photography in the 1970s. Tress mentioned a handful of photographers who were also going toward staged photography. Among them was Dwayne Michaels, who was eight years older that him, and eventually became his mentor after he showed his “Dream Collector” photos. Michaels, who already doing narrative sequences of photographs in the late 1960s, was encouraging him to explore the genre as well. Jerry Uelsmann, who was already a master of surrealist photo montage at the time, also proved to be a noteworthy influence for staged photography.

Apart from all the folklore, myths, environmental photography and dreams of children, Tress also tapped into his own psyche. Through a notebook filled with his own dreams, he put a lot of his own personal feelings about his childhood and other struggles growing up. He was also reading a lot of Carl Jung’s work at the time, drawing inspiration from the psychoanalyst’s notions on the universal archetypes.

“I have a notebook where I wrote down a lot of my own dreams. So I also brought a lot of my own personal feelings about my own childhood, which was a little dysfunctional, not so great. Also, I’m a gay person. Growing up gay in the 1950s, in high school, you had a feeling of alienation and being an outsider. So a lot of people’s dreams deal with those themes of being alone, etc. The sociological, the primitive, my own personal feelings, and the psychological, all combined to make the ‘Dream Collector’ images.”

Tress also noted that while every photographer now has several books, it wasn’t the case around the time the “Dream Collector” book came out.

“In the 1970s, when this book came out, there were very few photo books. You know, even the most famous photographers only had one or two photo books. And so, when this book came out, it was very unusual, given the subject matter.”

The creative process behind “Dream Collector”

By the time I got to ask about the creative process behind Tress’ iconic series, it was already becoming apparent that there were several interesting layers to the project. His collaboration with children, for example, was more subtle and indirect than I (and perhaps many others) initially thought.

“There’s a little bit of a misconception about the children, that I’m illustrating that particular child’s dream for the “Dream Collector.” That’s not really true. It’s kind of become a myth,” he clarified during our chat. “Other photographers also worked with children and their dreams. But, the way I would work is that I would just put dream themes in my notebook and then I would find them later.”

“Flying Dream”

He cited his flying dream photo to explain this. One of the most popular from the series, it shows some boys up against a baseball backstop fence. “I just came across them and asked them to climb the fence and spread out their arms. So, it really was not any of those kids’ dream, but I made it into it.”

However, Tress also mentioned doing workshops in schools. There, he brought a Polaroid camera and asked the kids in the classroom to act out their dreams. They also made a little book with the photos. During one of these sessions, he took yet another memorable and impactful photo that proved perfect for the project.

From “Dream Collector”

“I did this when I was doing the workshops in the schools. But, it really was my memory of being in school and worrying about the exam. You know, having that dream of anxiety about failing an exam,” he shared. “Also, a lot of children’s games and themselves are dreamlike, like being chased by a ghost or white chalk on your face. So, I would see kids playing with those games and I would just ask to photograph them. I would make it into some kind of a dream situation.”

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