JTF (just the facts): Published in 2016 by Steidl (here). Hardcover, bound in green cloth, 228 pages, with 105 black-and-white reproductions, $75. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Born in the East (Teaneck, NJ, 1942) and educated there (Penn. State University, 1966; SUNY, Buffalo, 1972), Henry Wessel, Jr. was smitten with California and its light in 1970. He has spent most of his life since then photographing the terrain West of the Rockies and the people who have settled there, which includes himself. The trajectory of his biography is thus not unlike that of Robert Adams, another New Jersey native.
During the same decade that Ansel Adams (and Harry Lunn) were creating an art market for photographs in New York with a homesick view of America as the Edenic West, younger photographers were busy documenting the less sublime truth that real estate developers (with government aid) were paving over deserts and clear-cutting wilderness.
Wessel was among the first to earn individual acclaim for this more jaundiced take on the West. In 1972, at the age of 30—three years before he was chosen by Willard Jenkins as one of the eight younger Americans (and two Germans) for the epochal New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at George Eastman House—Wessel had a solo show of 40 photographs at MoMA. (Robert Adams had to share billing with Emmet Gowin when he first exhibited there in 1971-72.)
That first MoMA show, organized by assistant curator Dennis Longwell, set the tone for Wessel’s career. The sensual eloquence of the light in those black-and-white prints contrasted with their tight-lipped captions. It was as if Wessel begrudged having to put into words what should have been wholly apparent to the public from the photographs themselves. The titles on the checklist are comical in their reticence and could hardly have been less ingratiating: (cacti)., (single cacti)., (building with window and air conditioner)., (house and telephone wires)., (2 palm trees)., (shrubs, stone wall)., (animal cage)., (trimmed shrubs, sidewalk, 2 brick pillars)., (house with car parked in front)., (shrub with wire fence, street and wood fence).
Wessel has stubbornly followed the narrow path he blazed in the ‘70s, with only a few divagations. While teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, he went about his business of photographing what he found nearby in California and neighboring states. Although he made the transition to color in the 1980s, he seems to be at heart a black-and-white photographer. He continues to shoot and process film.
This volume gathers together three previously unpublished bodies of work from the 1980s and ‘90s. As in the MoMA show, he keeps text to a minimum. There is no essay. Quotes from poems by Wallace Stevens provide the epigraph (four lines from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird) and the afterword (the complete Anecdote of the Jar). None of the photographs bears a caption, not even a date. They are forced to succeed or fail on their descriptive and formal strength alone, as photographs, without winsome anecdotes or other personal propaganda from him to convince us to admire or love them. Each occupies the right-hand page with a blank page opposite.
Traffic is a record of the daily weekday commute from his home in Richmond, CA to his teaching job in San Francisco during the early 1980s. The photographs consists of nothing but people driving their cars, taken through the window of his own moving or stationary car. Like similar series by Andrew Bush, Mark Haven, and Lee Friedlander, these are formalist comedies and socio-economic studies of America on the road.
Driving can feel so entirely private as we speed around in our portable metal and glass boxes, even becoming a meditative experience when a piece of music or news engages us, that we can easily forget we are often plainly visible (if only in profile) to fellow motorists going along parallel tracks.
Wessel’s series is a reminder that we are potentially no less exposed on the highway than if riding the bus or walking down the street, or seated in a shop window. A man stares rigidly ahead, cigarette poised between thumb and forefinger. Oblivious to his surroundings, he could be (if he weren’t behind the wheel) a mathematician in a classroom ready to write an equation in chalk. The middle-aged woman who can barely see over the dashboard is likely not aware that the jaunty car she’s driving only adds to her ridiculousness.
The photographs are riddled with incidental humor, from sun visors rudely obscuring faces, to smears (dog snot?) on the windows of Wessel’s own vehicle. Behind these passing cars are backgrounds as varied and unpredictable as the interiors he is peering into. The conjunction between the two can create visual accidents that no amount of planning could have imagined. Wessel probably had no clue, until he developed the picture, that the circular concrete sections of pipe on a truck behind a serenely seated blonde woman look like giant hair curlers.
As dry weather in the West slows corrosion, a more diverse ensemble of automobiles can be found on the expressways of California than in the East. Wessel’s edit has uncovered a ‘40s sedan in excellent condition, ‘70s muscle cars and land yachts, Japanese nonaggressive imports and Detroit’s latest misbegotten efforts to be fuel-efficient and cool. (The ‘80s is widely considered the nadir of American automotive styling.)
A snapshot of a thing can reveal secrets about its owner that the owner may want to keep hidden. Gashes in back doors and half-finished paint jobs indicate who may be behind on their payments. A particular model may express status or ethnic pride. But plenty of people here probably bought their cars just to take them place-to-place safely without breaking down.
The forms in Wessel ’70s photographs tended to be compact and confined rather than loose or elongated. He liked stocky rectangles, foregrounds with looming shapes and maximum depth of field. As with Harry Callahan’s and Jan Groover’s urban landscapes, the spaces between buildings could be as pronounced as the buildings themselves.
The photographer’s task, Wessel has said, “is to describe the existing light.” Believing in the light allows him (and the viewer) to believe that “the things photographed existed in the world.” As the curator Keith Davis has written: “This is a world created, not simply illuminated, by light.”
These characteristics can be seen in Sunset Park. The 50 photographs, the largest of the three groups in the book, are products of after-dark walks over four years in the 1990s through Santa Monica. The coziness of his softly romantic tour around this (at the time) middle-class neighborhood inevitably recalls Adams’ Summer Nights from a decade earlier.
Human beings, when they appeared in Wessel’s work during the ‘70s, were often isolated and contemplative, their postures or gestures absurdist inflection points. In Sunset Park, people are absent, their existence noted only indirectly, as in Summer Nights, primarily by the cool white glow from windows or the outlines around gated yards. The dark here is lushly enveloping rather than dangerous. Streetlights and moonlight guide us down alleyways. We saunter without fear of attack or thoughts of trespassing.
Wessel’s vision of American suburbia, however, isn’t quite as comforting as Adams’. Something scarier is afoot. Turning the pages, we notice that some of the walls are cracked and the fences missing pales. The roots of trees extend up through the sidewalks like a monster’s feet or hands, as if buried and unpropiatiated forces were about to erupt. Could the children asleep in their beds inside these clapboard homes be having bad dreams? This fairy tale of bourgeois security may not have a happy ending.
Continental Divide begins as if it will be a continuation of the previous series. We are among tidy bungalows and tended streets, an orderliness that only gradually breaks down as the sequence progresses. Both the houses and the roads have fallen into disrepair. Water is scarce. A housing development sits on a barren ridge like teeth left in a broken jaw. Climbing higher on the empty roads, we note that the relentless wind has crippled the few trees. A string of horses, either wild or escapees from a ranch, wanders aimlessly along the side of a highway. Two hitchhikers are having no luck. America has cashed out. Neither way, West or East, leads anywhere we want to go anymore.
Wessel’s photographs have in the past shown an acceptance of the world as it is, for all its shortcomings. This book has a sharper political edge of the sort more familiar at certain times in the work of Lewis Baltz and Adams. The emotional arc—beginning with the on-the-road democratic laughter of Traffic and ending in the entropy of Continental Divide—is unexpected but convincing. The despair feels earned, not forced.
Gerhard Steidl has looked after American photographers more diligently than any publisher on any continent. Especially for the generation that rose to prominence in the 1970s, he has reproduced their new and old work carefully—and expensively—even as most American editors had moved on to trendier figures. This handsome volume by an artist who deserves to be more than a photographer’s photographer is another example of the invaluable service he provides.
Collector’s POV: Henry Wessel is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here) and Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco (here). Wessel’s prints have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $3000 to $16000.