Fish Tank Sonata

Photography, Arthur Tress has said, is like fishing: They both involve hunting and capture. During the past four years, he lugged a 100-year-old aquarium from one U.S. coast to the other, filling it with assorted doodads and knickknacks from the ‘40s and ‘50s. At each stop, the artist-photographer would hunt down this “flea-market trash,” assemble it in the aquarium and capture it in a picture. The resulting 120 slides make up a surreal allegory called “Fish Tank Sonata,” in which a fisherman learns about life and environmental responsibility from a red snapper.

Tress, 52, considers his underwater tableaux a form of folk art, slightly askew and often funny--a duck decoy wears antlers, a dog poses in front of a microphone. The idea started with 19th-Century Catskill painter Thomas Cole’s allegorical series, “The Voyage of Life,” and crystallized when Tress found a ‘50s-kitsch pink ceramic fisherman and, finally, the antique aquarium.

Tress, who now lives in Cambria, grew up near New York’s Coney Island amusement park and was fascinated by its feeling of “magic in decline.” Some of his early black-and-white photographs, full of shadowy, dangerous figures, evoke a decaying fun house. In 1980, Tress put together “The Teapot Opera,” photographs depicting a teapot’s voyage of spiritual discovery on a Victorian toy theater stage (the book of the series is published by Abbeville Press). This was the first part of the trilogy that includes “Fish Tank Sonata.” The final installment, “Requiem for a Paperweight,” should be complete by next year, about the time a touring exhibition of “Fish Tank Sonata” is due to open at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. A 30-year retrospective of his work will be exhibited at the Steve Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles next spring.