In the fall of 1960 Henry Wessel (1942–2018) left his family home in New Jersey to attend college in Central Pennsylvania. At the time, Wessel had never been further west than Philadelphia. On Friday afternoons, to offset the daily classroom cadence, Wessel would pack a knapsack and hitchhike west. Once Saturday afternoon had ended, he would cross the highway and hitchhike back east, hoping to arrive in time for class on Monday morning. Though Wessel would not begin to photograph until years later, these early forays west planted seeds of discovery that proved fruitful for decades to come.
Hitchhike is a westward journey from the grassy farmlands in the Midwest to the wide, open, dusty landscape further west. This precisely arranged sequence of photos draws from Wessel’s 50-year archive. The images describe barns, gas stations, traveling salesmen, dogs asleep in truck beds, families eating in diners and open highways, all lit by bright western light, almost physical in its presence.
This book presents three independent bodies of work by Henry Wessel (1942–2018) from the past five decades. Each series is a precise sequence recreating the experience of passing through the territory described. Walkabout invites the viewer to walk with Wessel through working-class neighborhoods and bordering urban areas. The photos show sun-soaked homes, cars, bars, alleyways, gas stations and cyclone fences, reminding us that intuition can lead to dramatic possibilities anywhere. Wessel describes his approach: “At the core of this receptivity is a process that might be called soft eyes. It is a physical sensation. You are not looking for something. You are open, receptive. At some point, you are in front of something that you cannot ignore.”
Man Alone shows photographs Wessel made of men in San Francisco. What at first seems a study of the gesture and gait of the urban man is actually a collection of individuals: each man’s singularity is described through the interrelatedness of stride, garb, facial expression and the shape of the photo.
Wessel’s final work, Botanical Census, meanders through city streets, parks, roadsides and open fields. Images of bushes, succulents, trees, topiary and weeds, rendered by sharp-edged light, reveal the aesthetic possibilities growing all around us.
Published by La Fábrica. Text by Jean-Christophe Blaser, Nathalie Pariente, Antonio Pomet.
In 1975, curator William Jenkins noticed that a slew of American photographers possessed a similar documentarian aesthetic—direct, mostly black-and-white prints of urban landscapes, executed with an ironic, at times, critical eye—and famously dubbed this aesthetic the New Topographics. Bay Area photographer Henry Wessel (1942–2018) was counted among the group’s ranks, along with Robert Adams, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott and Stephen Shore. Known for his black-and-white images of the American West, Wessel’s work closely aligns with Jensen’s description. Exploring the territory where nature and culture meet, Wessel spontaneously captured scenes from everyday life, sometimes incorporating touches of deadpan humor in the process. Unlike some of the other New Topographic photographers, however, he still paid considerable attention to form and light—unwilling to fully cede stylized interventions. As he traversed the West, Wessel developed a repertoire of motifs—including shrubbery, parking lots and beachgoers—transmuting banal subjects into a personal poetry. Henry Wessel: Documentary Style and Beyond presents a survey of the photographer’s work, compiling a selection of his most representative images. The volume also includes photographs by other great figures of American documentary photography, such as Ed Ruscha, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus.
This book presents three independent bodies of work by Henry Wessel (born 1942), each being a precise sequence arranged to give the viewer the experience of what it felt like to pass through the territory described.
The first series, Traffic, shows Wessel’s photos of drivers stuck in traffic as he commuted in the early 1980s from Richmond, California, to San Francisco in the morning rush hour. Wessel records the determination, impatience and blank boredom of his fellow drivers as they navigate a daily drill that seems at times daunting and hopeless. Sunset Park is Wessel’s series of night photos of the modest working-class neighborhood of Sunset Park in Santa Monica. Over four years in the mid-1990s, Wessel captured the nocturnal transformation of suburbia into a strange, sometimes eerie, landscape. In his words, “you can’t help but notice how the world is reconfigured by the lights at night. The spot lighting of particular areas, the lack of ambient light, the unnatural way that shadows are cast, all take us to an unfamiliar place….” Wessel’s final series, Continental Divide, takes the viewer on a ride from the dense, suburban flatlands of the Midwest, up across the Rocky Mountains, and down into the sparse desert landscape of the American West. Wessel depicts its houses, shacks, street corners and the highway, reminding us of the inherent aesthetics of the everyday.
In 2012 Henry Wessel assembled Incidents, a book of 27 previously unpublished photographs. Decisive and succinct, each incident is laid down with the aesthetic immediacy of a snapshot, recalling Garry Winogrand's quote that "there is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described." As Wessel stated in a recent interview: "We can recognize and name what has been described but not what just happened, not what is going on, not what is about to happen. Once you accept the idea that all photographs are fictions, analogies for the things they represent, then you are more receptive to the meaning that is being suggested by that analogy, by that fiction. To be more specific, photographs are about something that would not exist without the photograph."
Waikiki, one of Honolulu's most famous neighborhoods, had already become a crowded tourist destination when Henry Wessel photographed there in the late 1970s and early 80s. This book contains Wessel's edit of these pictures and is a record of American leisure at this time--of surf, sand and inexhaustible pleasure-seekers. Yet Wessel equally explores the contradictions of Waikiki--concrete hotels invading pristine beaches, culture encroaching on nature. Despite all the fun in the sun, Wessel's subjects are often distanced and dissatisfied, suggesting an underlying unease.
Born in New Jersey in 1942, Henry Wessel has been awarded two Guggenheim fellowships and three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work is held in the permanent collections of major American, European and Asian museums. Wessel has exhibition extensively, including solo exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.