IN AN IMAGE from Arthur Tress’s photography series Dream Collector, a small blond boy sits in a hole in a dilapidated roof, with only his head, arms and upper torso visible. A muddy wasteland, dotted with pools of water, stretches out behind him. The boy’s expression is peaceful amid the decay.
Years later, in a book titled Contact Sheets, Tress described the shooting of this image as a moment of “spontaneous accidental ‘improvisation’ done on the spot.” In 1970, as he was driving down a small coastal road in the eastern American state of Maryland, he came across a broken roof that had been abandoned on a long pier. The blond boy appeared on his bicycle, as if out of nowhere, and Tress asked him to pose for the photo. It was, he said, one of those “strange moments which transforms the ordinary to a special archetypical space.”
Such moments occurred often during the making of Dream Collector. Tress shot the series between 1969 and 1974, and, aside from the image of the boy and the roof, captured all of its photographs in and around New York City. Tress would approach children in various public locales and talk with them about strange dreams and nightmares—sometimes his, sometimes their own. Then, he and the children worked together to stage those dreams for the photographs, using props from their surroundings.
Before Dream Collector, Tress’s photographic work was primarily in the realm of traditional documentary and street photography. In an email exchange with a fellow artist, he said that the series helped him “move away” from that, leading him to “new areas of internal self-exploration” and the “wounds of my early childhood.” But although the project’s subject matter is fictional, and although Tress used techniques of directorial staging when composing the images, Dream Collector’s aesthetic borrows heavily from that of documentary realism. For Tress, this evocation of the documentary style was intentional. The series’s “strange mixture of the real and unreal,” he said, produces an uneasiness in its viewers, causing them to see “reflections of their own personal inner dramas.”
When viewed with a certain eye, some of Tress’s shots even resonate with photojournalistic images that have appeared in the news in much later years. His picture of a boy buried in the ground, for example, bears a striking resemblance to the Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew’s famous photograph of a child killed by the 1984 Bhopal gas leak. Tress’s image of a boy standing in a room with gaping holes in the wall and ceiling is reminiscent of a photograph of a father and his daughters playing amid the remains of their bombed house in the Gaza Strip, captured in 2015 by the Palestinian photojournalist Emad Samir Nassar.
The choice of children as subjects was central to Dream Collector’s preoccupation with the relationship between the documentary and the fictional. According to Tress, life is a mixture of reality and fantasy, and children’s vibrant imaginations—exemplified by their love for play-acting—make them adept at appreciating the close relationship between the two. Tress himself shares this understanding of the porosity between reality and imagination. This, he said, helped each child act out sinister scenes for him as if “they were both comrades along a very dangerous road.”