Earlier this spring, the de Young Museum exhibited recently uncovered work by photographer Arthur Tress. In 2009, while sorting through the belongings of his recently deceased sister, Tress found a number of prints and more than nine hundred negatives he had taken on a 1964 trip to San Francisco. In those pictures, the young Tress captured the collision of two major events taking place in San Francisco — the Republican National Convention (called the Goldwater Convention after Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and held at the aptly named San Francisco Cow Palace) and the influx of a large number of Beatles fans prior to the launch of the band’s first North American tour. San Francisco at the time was also the site of the tense Auto Row demonstrations, protests against discriminatory hiring practices in the city’s car dealerships.
While the collision of these disparate groups may seem incidental, De Young curator James Ganz, who organized the exhibition, writes in the introduction to the catalog for Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 that Beatles promoters took advantage of the free press surrounding the Goldwater Convention by passing out large printed posters bearing the slogan “Ringo for President.” Although something about handing out “Ringo for President” signs seems negligible compared to, say, the hype surrounding Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert’s 2010 marches on Washington, Tress captured an early moment in mid-20th-century America when pop culture began to exert a greater influence on high-level politics, even as visual broadcast culture was still in its nascent stage.
Beyond the political marches and demonstrations, Tress photographed ordinary people in restaurants and car washes, on sidewalks and outside homes. Ganz cites the influence of photographers Robert Frank and Diane Arbus on the young Tress. I would also draw similarities between this early San Francisco work and that of Richard Kalvar. Like Kalvar, Tress excels at finding and framing surreal moments in urban life — though unlike Kalvar, Tress admits that he would sometimes ask his subjects to pose to draw out this absurdist quality. In some instances, however, it seems that Tress’s subjects did the work for him; a reporter is quoted at the beginning of the catalog, writing on the outfits of some Goldwater supporters:
They were sitting there, these prosperous looking, middle-aged people wearing their golden capes and their cowboy hats and their sheriff’s badges, munching on their chocolate-covered ice cream bars. They were not … nuts or kooks, but they happened to look pretty odd at that moment.
In the catalog, occasional contact sheets are interspersed with carefully framed photographs. These series of images read like film stills, adding a cinematic variety to the photo spreads that surround them. The sheets are also a reminder that this collection lay unexhibited and largely unprinted for decades before being brought to light. We’re lucky to now be able to look at what Tress has made available to us — his immersion as a photographer in this moment in San Francisco’s past.