Home » A Photographer to Know » A Photographer to Know: Henry Wessel

A Photographer to Know: Henry Wessel

Henry Wessel was introduced to photography during college(early 1960’s) and was immediately hooked on how the camera rendered the world. Within a decade he had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship, had a one person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and started and finished a Masters in Fine Art.

His photography seems to me to straddle a few different genres: landscape, street and social documentary. But what really stands out for me is the way he renders light as almost searing his subjects, as well as his sense of the ironic and humorous.

Henry’s work was included in the 1975 seminal exhibition, the “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”, which had-and continues to have– a significant impact on the field of photography– especially landscape photography. This work signaled a shift away from the traditional, romanticized view of the world that we recognize in work by people like Ansel Adams to one of a more detached view of man’s interaction with the land.

Personally, it took me years to warm up to this new work but, then, I had my nose buried in my own photographic interests and there weren’t many resources (no internet) available as there are today, which is a wonderful thing for those interested in learning and developing.

Although I knew the work of most of the photographers included in the New Topographics group, Wessel somehow escaped my radar. When I first saw his work, just a few years ago, I was really surprised that he had been part of that group based on the limited images I had seen. His work seemed to have more of a point of view and personality than often attributed to that group. It was much more like some of the street photographers I was aware of, such as Garry Winogrand and maybe even a little Lee Friedlander.

As I researched his work more deeply, I did find images that were more in line with the New Topographics group, however, even if those seemed more “banal”, the way he used light and shadow was amazing—and different than what we see more commonly.

When we encounter things that are done in a different way than we might do them, giving it our attention isn’t a matter liking or disliking or of our wanting to copy or emulate a style. The value is that in looking and noticing we can gain knowledge of alternative ways of doing things. We see how doing something different can affect a subject and the look of a photograph. This allows us to store this information in our “bag of tricks” as it were and gives us more information to draw on to realize our intent for one of our photographs. Drawing on these resources doesn’t just mean a linear, or direct use of something we’ve learned but maybe we make a more random connection between things that seem unrelated and we end up solving a problem in a unique way.

So, in addition to looking into his work for those wonderful moments of irony and humor, it is worth notice how he uses light in a different way than we might. Notice how he often uses a frontal, or nearly frontal (light from behind his position), light and how he allows his exposure to push the limits of the brightness of the image. His use of flash is on-camera and unapologetic, he wants to “draw” his subject with that searing light.

My initial exposure to Wessel was through the first video below and I really appreciated his passion for photography and his comments on his way of working—as well as the photographs. What he presents here with regards to the “animalistic” response might seem contradictory to some of what we have covered in The Idea: Part I, but we will be addressing how this all comes together in Part II.

These next two videos cover more of his work and his philosophy and way of working. They are both wonderful to watch—I continually return to these and have probably watched each 10 times while preparing this post. There is always some new thought that catches my attention with each viewing—probably because when I hear one, my mind races off and I don’t hear what comes after that until the next time I watch it!

So, “Let me take you on a walk and we’ll start here…”  excerpt from the last video.

I’d love to hear your comments on Henry or any part of this presentation.

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“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.

4 thoughts on “A Photographer to Know: Henry Wessel

  1. John, I think the idea of learning more about an artist or a photographer, regardless whether we could easily connect to his work or not, helps us to open our mind and learn more about the ideas driving other artists to produce their work. This is a good example. I have watched these videos before, without any deeper thoughts. Now that you have posted this blog entry with this nice introduction I had the chance to give Henry Wessel a second chance. Even though I would not consider his work as easily accessible for every viewer I find his work much more intriguing than I did before. This is a very valuable lesson. I have had a similar experience after going through Robert Frank´s “The Americans”. My initial response was not very positive, after reading more about the person, the process and his thoughts, I can now truly see why this work is so highly acclaimed and I can also see why the initial reaction of the critics was so bad. Thanks for sharing Henry Wessel with us. I am just starting to appreciate Henry Wessel more and more.

    • Thanks Sebastian. I think you presented a pretty good outline as to how the process can work. We get a little exposure and a little information and that can crack the door open just a bit and we begin to see beyond where we were–we move on to a new playing field, one we didn’t recognize before!

  2. Great videos, very dense in content, thanks – many thoughts about these, but for now: I really enjoyed in the 2nd video (KQED) Wessel’s words at 7:09. Pointing to a pile of many large prints, ..”out of this pile only a couple work … the rest are faillures .. but of course they can all teach you something”. That echoed my experience, and was a bit comforting, as my own “success rate” is in the low 2 % or less, too .. of course all probably at a different overall level. And I can see how curating my own shots made me a better shooter, though to be honest it is a part of the craft I often feel not too enthusiastic about (an euphemism) – dreading the vieweing of so many bad shots. Then again expectantly looking for that super good one.
    Also from the first video: some of my very best shots were taken quite fast, even if they were somewhat posed. But I really didn’t know they were any good until after I viewed them.

    PS. may be delete: Feeling somewhat ambivalent about posting here a link – thinking it would illustrate that point https://www.flickr.com/photos/nycandre/2796286658/in/set-72157608492427729

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