Tress describes the parking lots in a mildly ironic way as the Zen gardens of contemporary American life. The sparse features of the Japanese Zen garden are designed to quiet the mind and inspire meditation. Labor statistics show that Americans have indeed been reflecting on their working lives during the past year and a half. In what is now referred to as “The Great Resignation,” many workers have left old jobs and started new ones that feel more meaningful. They’ve moved out of the major cities and migrated closer to loved ones. Tress’ empty parking lots literalize the geographic shifts that have accompanied this period of transition in American labor.
Tress, who is in his eighties, has developed a distinctive way of working with the square format. He rotates his Hasselblad 45-degrees to create diamonds, or as he calls them, “pointers.” Tress reinvigorates the ubiquitous square by taking literally Emily Dickinson’s exhortation to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In this series, the shape seems to make visible the disorientation of the moment.
Tress focuses on elements in the parking lots that reveal the passage of time. His pictures of crumbling asphalt and worn paint redirect attention from the billion-dollar building projects that typically dominate stories about the architecture of the information economy. As the novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki described the concept of “sabi,” or the patina of time, in Japanese aesthetics: “We love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.” Tress spent six months in Japan while in his twenties and has returned many times since. He built a world-class collection of Japanese books, recently donated to the University of Pennsylvania, and he continues to find inspiration in Japanese art and culture, whether in kimono patterns, garden design, or shunga books.
Tress’ pictures also call to mind photographs made in the early 1990s by Masahisa Fukase. His series “Hibi” was made with a point-and-shoot camera, so the pictures bear the date of their exposure, which once emphasized their contemporaneity. Fukase printed them in gelatin silver and overlaid them with drips and streaks of bold, transparent color, highlighting the cracks in the pavement, like those favored by Tress. The elegant radiance of California sunlight reflected in “Gardens of Asphalt” is also reminiscent of Irving Penn’s series “Underfoot,” one of the artist’s final bodies of work, made when he was 83 years old, which looked closely at the detritus of the street. Penn’s pictures, like Tress’, have what Tanizaki would call a “pensive luster.”
In Tress’ emphasis on the aging of the built environment, he celebrates slowness and the passage of time, even in a world that seems relentlessly oriented towards the new.
By Kim Beil
Kim Beil teaches art history at Stanford University. She is the author of Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography.