Tim Soter, ForTress

JTF (just the facts): Published by The Ship Escaped (self-published) in 2019 (here). Hardcover, 122 pages, with 64 color photographs. Includes texts by the artist and the subject. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Tim Soter. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tim Soter is a New York-based photographer and artist whose personal work focuses on visual storytelling, often combining still photography, comic books, collages, and text elements. His work stands out for its sharp sense of humor. He has published several photobooks, and the last two have been photo biographies. The first, titled Tim! Go Away, documented Soter’s obsession with the photographer Duane Michals, chronicling the connection they built over many years, from the first moment Soter wrote him a letter asking if they could meet to their later collaboration on various projects.

The subject of Soter’s new book is the legendary photographer Arthur Tress, whose work is known for its strikingly surreal and imaginative perspective. The story is told through the genuine and unique friendship Soter built with Tress over the years. In the book, Soter combines photographs he took of Tress, his own collages, and in depth conversations with Tress (including emails and transcribed phone calls) into a layered narrative. The book’s full title, ForTress (a book about Arthur Tress by Tim Soter), not only describes its essence but also brings in a light sense wordplay and humor.

The cover of the book has a photograph of Tress sitting in an outdoor swimming pool covering his eyes with his hands; behind him, there are a palm tree, a hill, and women in swimsuits. This affectionate portrait captures a flash of Tress’s spirit, mixing vulnerability and a sense of wry comedy. The book itself opens with patterned endpapers with rows of two different tiny faces of Tress, as a boy and man. The next spread is Tress’s advice to Soter – a line at the top of the page reads “I was reading a Russian constructivist book and I came across this quote “The rhythm of chaos,” and it continues at the bottom “You should think about your book this way.” These words of wisdom set the tone for the book and its content.

A photograph of Tress at a New York Art Book Fair table is paired with a text that tells the original story of how the two met. It was almost eight years ago when Soter stopped by at a table with Tress’s work, and then realizing Tress himself was there, struck up a conversation. The next day, the two of them were in Coney Island together taking photographs. Now in his late seventies, Tress continuous to photograph almost every day.

A few spreads into the book, there a horizontal collage – an image of Tress with his arms stretched above his head, strangely holding his own head. Collages like this one, clever and with a sharp sense of visual playfulness, appear throughout the book, showing Soter’s sensibility. These collages also allude to Tress’s own unique photographic creativity.

In page after page, through photographs and conversations between Soter and Tress, we learn that Tress was raised in Brighton Beach, moved to Riverside Drive at 72nd, and then on to Cambria in California. In 2015, some twenty-two years later, he moved up to San Francisco, when he inherited a house from his sister. In their wide ranging conversations, the two discuss making living with photography, sharing a hot tub, Tress’s work and its perception by others, and life and its twisted roads. And there are many lively personal messages from Tress, like one saying “Hi, I just had some dental surgery so my mouth is sore. So I will call you now”.

Soter’s images of Tress are quietly intimate, mixing pictures of the artist at work and more mundane shots of everyday rhythms. A photograph of Tress on the shore fixing his wetsuit is paired with an image showing Tress walking on the outskirts of the city; two lines coming out of Tress’s eyes in first photo in the direction of his second figure make an exciting and witty connection. We tag along as Tress squats to take a photo of an object on the ground, edits work in his house, enjoys his hot tub, and walks along the shore. There are also shots of boxes with contacts, a metal outdoor chair, a sunlit bedroom with piles of books, and a cup with a dozen toothbrushes. These are then intermingled with archival images of Tress as a young man, a selection of book covers he published, and a letter he received from Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1976.

One spread has text on the left, almost a parade of thoughts, as Tress sends Soter some suggestions about the book, such as “or just give me some super powers which I have after 65 years of camera handling.. for sure”. On the right, there is a photo of Tress on his knees looking at photographs in a sunny room, this horizontal photo turned vertical, creating an illusion of Tress climbing the wall. In another photograph, Tress is somewhere on hiking trails, looking at the hills with his back to us – a black cloud above his head reflects his thought “I’m not a Spring chicken, I’m a Fall pigeon.” On the left side, Tress is at the bottom of a green hill, with blue sky above, and a cut out figure of Tress and his heads floats in the air making a shape of a talking bubble. Combinations like this one make the book feel like an equal conversation between two artists who share similar sensibilities and connect on various levels.

For those that don’t know Tress and his work, Soter’s book may feel a little too “inside baseball,” as if aimed only at committed photo enthusiasts. But a closer look shows that Soter has crafted an immersive and often surprisingly touching photobiography, depicting Tress’s creative spirit but also showing him as a down to earth human being and passionate and dedicated artist. The book is an honest and warm hearted tribute to both the free-thinking nature that Tress embodies, and the friendship they built over the years. In the end, ForTress is as much about Arthur Tress as it is about Soter himself, encouraging us to look more closely at how we face and follow our own obsessions.

Collector’s POV: Tim Soter does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

Tim Soter, The Ship Escaped

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