Henry Wessel was featured in the 1975 exhibition, “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape.” Considered one of the most influential shows in modern photography, Wessel’s understated work was alongside pictures by Stephen Shore, the Bechers and Lewis Baltz.
A New York Times review by Michael Kimmelman of Wessel’s show at MOMA in 2007 explained a sliver of what New Topographics photographers were after.
“Following Walker Evans’s example, a postwar generation focused on what everybody in America during the 1950s, 60s and 70s actually saw in front of their faces or through their windshields or across their backyard fences, but didn’t bother to register or preferred not to – much less to think was worth photographing. These were run of the mill subjects, mostly, shot with deadpan acumen.. seemingly nowhere places, shown to be somewhere after all. In the populist spirit of Walt Whitman, but with a heavy dose of dry-eyed skepticism, they found a fresh kind of poetics in the American everyday… [Wessel] had a knack for seeing a compositional order where it didn’t obviously present itself – making pictures like visual haikus.”
There’s such good counsel in Wessel’s work about the photographic process, working and looking for the element of surprise as Kimmelman wrote, “without sentiment, but without condescension, either…” But the author also pointed out Wessel worked modestly, and that his self-effacing style sometimes led to boring images. But maybe that’s the point, too, that this expansive country, while filled with incredible subject matter, can sometimes be kind of plain. Time to look deeper.
I first saw Wessel’s work in Philip Gefter’s book “Photography After Frank,” a collection of essays originally published in the NY Times. Wessel speaks here, adding insights to his process.
“Part of it has to do with the discipline of being actively receptive… At the core of this receptivity 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.”
Marrying his images to his thoughts about his work made both get under my skin. It all just resonates. Commenting on a picture of a man watching birds take flight, Wessel said, “When I look at it now, I marvel at how much of the world is hidden in the flux of time.” Is that photography? Mining time to see what’s between the seconds?
And this is a treasure, “The process of photographing is a pleasure: eyes open, receptive, sensing, and at some point, connecting. It’s thrilling to be outside your mind, your eyes far ahead of your thoughts.”