San Francisco

Henry Wessel, Jr.

Fraenkel Gallery

Henry Wessel, in this miniretrospective tracing his career from 1970 to 1980, shows himself to be a photographer who has formed a singular vision within a genre well honed by contemporary practitioners. In a direct manner, Wessel explores America’s prosaic yet surreal man-made landscapes: bizarrely shaped shrubbery, forlorn roadside motels, pastel colored stucco cottages and, most recently, Waikiki’s tourist milieu. It is subject matter that lends itself to satire or mockery, and can symbolize contemporary America at its most vacuous and banal. However, Wessel, who employs the type of vernacular, snapshot formalism and content that informs the work of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, circumvents the seamy or belligerent reading of American life that surfaces regularly in this photographic approach.

Wessel’s vision is almost antiseptic; the public locales he frequents—predominantly Western sites—appear particularly clean and perennially sun-drenched. Exquisite black-and-white printing transforms even mundane events and scenes into beautiful silvery tonalities that are deliberately seductive. Though these photographs play off a certain California-style languidness, they adhere to rigorous formal strategies, dependent (especially in the older work) on details revealed only on careful scrutiny. Typical of this approach is a photograph of a minute figure sitting on a porch, who becomes visible only after the viewer moves beyond the obvious—the roof-high grass obscuring the small cottage. In another photograph, a man stands in a public park, surrounded by dappled light, which, on close inspection turns out to be a flock of pigeons.

The Hawaii photographs, Wessel’s most recent work, are his most subtle pictures, totally dependent on position and timing for their effect. Visual anecdotes are replaced by a precise emphasis on spatial relationships. Some of these pictures, such as a series of surf and bathers, are so tonally exquisite that Wessel’s precise timing and positioning are nearly overwhelmed by romantic ambience. However, in other compositions, particularly a photograph of four joggers who seem caught in Muybridge-like poses, the viewer is drawn back to the time and space conventions on which these pictures rely.

Within the tradition of photographic modernism, Wessel exploits the medium’s pictorial conventions, making photographs that are about photography and seeing. But tempered by the light, space and climate of the West, this photographer’s vision encompasses a gentle, nonsarcastic humor as well as an unapologetic appreciation for the surface pleasures of the well-made print.

Hal Fischer