The American photographer Henry Wessel spent almost half a century documenting life in the American West with his camera. A year after his death, Fondation A Stichting is devoting a retrospective to his oeuvre.
A car drives through the American suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. At the wheel is Henry Wessel (born 1942). He has his Leica at the ready. When he spots two children playing, he doesn’t hesitate for a second and pushes the button. Framed by the car window and bathed in Californian sunlight, Wessel shoots a cinematic image. “Who are these boys and where are they going?”, you wonder. A story creeps into each of Wessel’s photos and makes you think about what happened before and after it was taken. This sets him apart from traditional documentary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose images are clearly set and take place within the frame. Fondation A Stichting has devoted an entire wall to Wessel’s drive-by shootings: each of them is an illustration of the importance of mundane observations. His series Incidents, twenty-seven pictures without dates or place names, likewise underscores his talent to capture images of surprising moments that simply want to be told.
Wessel moved from New York to the San Francisco Bay Area after he visited the region in 1971 and was struck by the light, the variety of landscapes, and the urban centres. The area and its distinctive sunshine are a feature in many of his photographs.
Rather than using telephoto lenses or concealing himself from his subject, Wessel’s photographs are taken from up close, with a wide-angle lens, and very much in the moment, when something strikes him. As Wessel describes it: “I wander around until something catches my eye, trusting my instinct and taking a photograph when there are no words to describe an experience.”
Wessel is perhaps not as famous as Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, or Bernd and Hilla Becher, but he also took part in the landmark exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” at George Eastman House in Rochester in 1975.
But Wessel’s oeuvre is more than an unromanticised view of industrialized landscapes. He makes portraits and excels at street photography. His photos focus on composition, they play with light and shadow, and have a great sense of humour and drama. His exceptional photographic technique, in which he manipulates his black and white film both in the camera and in the dark room, results in images with a varied range of greyscales, whereby he avoids hard black and white contrasts. Thanks to this technique, Wessel’s night-time walks yield cinematic tableaux bathed in soft light.
Henry Wessel passed away in September last year. “Summer Light” is Fondation A Stichting’s beautiful tribute to the “Photo Buddha” – a nickname Wessel was given by his friend Lee Friedlander, because he always smiled.