This Week In Photography Books: Henry Wessel

by Jonathan Blaustein

Despite what you might have heard, I’m not a real Buddhist. (I just admire many of the precepts.) When it comes to meditation, I’m lazier than I’d like, but do find it very helpful for managing stress.

Walking meditation is a practice I’ve never gotten the hang of, as my mind races whenever I’m out and about. But put a camera in my hand, and it all makes sense. Life slows down, and the pleasure of observation can be overwhelming.

I make my work in the studio these days, but can easily remember the joy that street photography brings. It’s almost intoxicating. Strike the almost.

We often hear people say that reality is stranger and fiction, and I’m not sure I agree. Most good fiction is based upon reality. They’re jealous twins, rather than the type that finish each other’s sentences.

Look around, and you’ll notice some strange shit, no matter where you are. Endless cornfields in the Mid-West might seem boring to a native, but take an urbanite out there, and the miles of rows look like the Roman army.

Drop a devout teetotaler into a seedy dive bar on the Lower East Side, and I’m sure they’d make reference to the nether regions of Hades. (Do they still have dive bars down there, or has everything been gentrified into a fake-speakeasy?)

Where am I going with this? If one looks hard enough, and shoots the proper ratio of frames, the genius of poetic moments will emerge from the patternless chaos. It’s a fact, and probably not one that will ruffle your feathers. (As you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already have a passion for the lens-based arts.)

That said, I don’t often espouse the tired cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The proof is that this is something like my hundred and thirtieth column, and it’s only just come up. Why, you ask?

Because I’ve just put down the sublime and perfectly titled “Incidents,” by the under-appreciated New Topographics badass Henry Wessel. The slim, periwinkle hard-cover book was recently published by Steidl, and of course, they are known for good taste.

This book has no words. No titles. No essay. No explication whatsoever. Just the artist’s name.

While in lesser hands, that might seem arrogant, here, it proves the tired maxim I stated three paragraphs ago. (And the earlier one about reality and fiction too.)

Within, we see a set of black and white photographs that were clearly taken in California in the 70’s and perhaps early 80’s. That’s a conclusion any educated American viewer would reach. They are uniformly excellent pictures, and only two lack the human narrative.

Many were taken from a moving car, and one from the inside of a public bus. Those photos use the interior structure as an excellent framing device, as Lee Friedlander would come to do in his 21st Century “America by Car.” (If not earlier. If he did, I’m sure someone will correct me.)

This book is all about the quiet drama of insignificant moments, plucked from the space time continuum and frozen forever in celluloid. In that respect, it’s about as idealistic a book as you’re likely to come across, and one I’d heartily recommend.

As there are not so many images within, I’ve politely decided not to photograph them all. But we do see things that force us to stop and look carefully. A woman enters Harry’s Bar, maybe the most overused bar name of all, and she wears a jacket with the establishment’s name on the back. (Lean in, and you see it’s in Pismo Beach.)

A nudie bar has an official looking sign on its door: an application for a theater license. Through the car window, we see one boy astride another, seconds away from pummeling him. (Been there.)

What else? Some muscleheads shop for sunglasses on what is surely Venice Beach. Two young people lean against a wall, dressed for the sun, but above them we see a Christmas decoration.

The geometry of the constructed environment is ubiquitous, in fences, buildings, tennis courts, you name it. And then it all closes with a very poignant moment, as a young woman raises her skirt to show off a bruise. How did it get there? (You’re bound to wonder.)

OK. That’s enough of my wordy blabber. (Ironically about a wordless book.) Somehow, this is the first time I’ve written about Mr. Wessel’s work. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, spare book that reminds us why we love photography

To Purchase “Incidents” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. When I went to see Wessel’s exhibit at SFMOMA a few years back, I first had to go past a spectacular wall sized color photo from Mitch Epstein’s American Power. It literally almost knocked me off my feet- great, I thought, how is a roomful of very sedate B&W prints all under 16&20 ever gonna compete with that?

    Very well. First off, they were some of the most meticulously printed monochrome prints I’d ever seen, unlike his first monograph which was printed on the soft side, these had a beautiful, full tonal range. And each and every one invited you in to look at it, study it, get to know and enjoy it. They’re quiet photographs- but not without a very discreet and underlying power on a variety of levels.They don’t bowl you over from across the room, but they sure make it worth your while…