Monday, March 24, 2008

Henry Wessel

Today I’ve been thinking about a photographer who has had a tremendous influence on contemporary black and white photography. From his choice of everyday, almost snapshot-like subjects to his luminous use of grays in prints, his imprint is seen in much of contemporary black and white photography. You may recognize the style, but unless you live in San Francisco you’ve probably never heard of him. He rarely exhibits outside of California. His name is Henry Wessel.

Wessel can take an ordinary space and make it look amazing, because he knows just how to position himself relative to the subject. Take a look at this photograph.

It’s merely a photograph of well trimmed bushes but they jump out of the photograph as mesmerizing sculpture due to where Wessel chose to stand. Choosing where to stand is the principal shooting strategy of contemporary photography, as seen in modern masters such as Lee Friedlander.

In 1974 Henry Wessel's photographs appeared in Aperture (Volume 19, Number 1 - The Snapshot). The photograph I remember most is a photograph of a man in a suit standing on a beach with his back to the camera.

The photograph is shot from an odd perspective; the camera is held low, making the man look like a towering figure. Also, the photograph shows only the man’s back, so it is very mysterious. Why is he wearing a suit at the beach? Why is he holding his arm in that position? Why is the beach so empty?

If you’ve never seen Wessel’s work, you should definitely take a look at it. Even if you have seen it, it’s worth a second look. A good starting point is a feature that public TV station KQED created about him. There’s a short profile, some links, and a great video about him.


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