Arthur Tress was a 23-year-old unknown when he arrived in The City from Coney Island, N.Y., in 1964. He shot some 900 black-and-white photographs on San Francisco streets, capturing civil rights demonstrations, political rallies and everyday scenes. His subjects were both prominent and common people.
Dozens of those images, illustrating the social and cultural upheaval of the times, are on view in “Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964,” running through June at the de Young Museum.
Curator James A. Ganz, who organized the exhibition, calls 1964 “the last innocent year, a turning point between the optimism of Camelot and the tumultuous era” that followed.
Just after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, it was the year The City hosted the contentious Republican National Convention, with nominee Barry Goldwater, and the year the Beatles launched their first North American tour.
Tress developed and printed the photos in a communal darkroom in the Castro district before leaving in the fall. Stored and forgotten, they came to light in 2009 when Tress turned them over to Ganz.
In a letter written when he arrived in The City, Tress told his family: “For the next few days I am just walking around town taking pictures and visiting different places and parks and museums.”
But unlike most tourists, Tress avoided popular sites such as the Golden Gate Bridge or Chinatown, focusing on nondescript streets, laundromats and coffee shops.
“Tress is a photographer of people rather than landmarks,” Ganz says. “Given the option of pointing his lens at an attraction like Coit Tower or at a tourist observing the monument, he will always favor the human element over the architectural setting.”
More than 70 photos in the exhibit are so sharp, well-contrasted and powerful, they seem to have a range of color although they are black and white.
None of the pictures were shot in a studio or posed. Tress’ candid camera captures people on the street who seem to be unaware their picture was being taken.
Pictures of pedestrians, shop windows, commercial signs and the public present the image of a city both familiar and very different from today. Among the many fascinating images is an untitled photo, taken at the intersection of Van Ness Avenue and Geary Street, that shows people who seem to converge from various periods of history.
Despite the theme of this exhibition, Tress, who lives in Cambria, Calif., and continues to take photographs today, went on to practice what Ganz calls “staged photography.” His works are collected in major museums; he is best known for his surrealistic images and examination of the human form.
If You Go
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes June 3
Tickets: $6 to $10
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.deyoung.famsf.org