Photographing Arthur Tress

The photographs of Arthur Tress were a huge influence on me as a young gay man. While I wrestled with the notions of how to be an artist using the medium of photography, Arthur’s work pointed to the way in which I could make images that helped me interpret my life.

Being a part of the Exhibition Committee at Blue Sky gave my husband and I the amazing opportunity to host Arthur while he was visiting Portland for the opening of his March 2013 show. I was already excited about being able to hang out with him. Excitement turned to giddiness when he mentioned in an email that he had been asking photographers to photograph him in the nude, and asked if I would be interested.

So, of course it was great to hangout with one of my Art Heros, to run around Portland and break the law trespassing on Ross Island while he made photographs. It was invaluable to have him look at my work and give me feedback and he was incredibly endearing as he tried to infuse me with some “Jewish Moxie”, but what really rocked my world was photographing Arthur Tress.

I have been working on a new photo series about clowns, and I thought it might be the perfect fit to incorporate Arthur’s request to be photographed in the nude into this new body of work. We had been tossing around ideas for a few days and we scheduled the shoot for the morning of his last day in town. My hopes were for a pretty straightforward portrait: clown face, clown shoes, and little else. Arthur wanted to do an homage to Emmett Kelly’s famous clown persona “Weary Willie,” whose iconic act involved sweeping a pool of light under a rug.

I wanted to shoot outside and, of course, it was classic Portland spring weather: 40 degrees and drizzly. We start shooting and it’s going well; I was getting the photos we had intended to make. We had been working for about 30 minutes and we were doing the homage with an oversized rose and a mound of flour and I felt like we had got it. Arthur is 72 years old, he’s naked and starting to shiver, so I said “it’s good...we got it, were done.” There was a moment of exhale, a letting go, and then it was like a switch flipped and Magic happened. Arthur grabs a handful of flour and starts rubbing it all over his body, he then proceeds to fill the giant rose with flour and pouring it over his head in an insane enactment of pollination. Then he starts spewing mouthfuls of flour into the air, ending the crazy clown act with a mouthful of overtly sexual spittle. For me, it was a moment of transcendence when the photographer and the model become true collaborators, when the intentions of both parties is surpassed to create something new and unexpected.

It’s in these moments that I as “the photographer,” “the artist,” disappear and the machine that is in my hands is no longer a machine, but something more akin to the eye of God and for a few brief shinning moments we are elevated above the mundane.

Adrain Chesser, March 2013