San Francisco

Henry Wessel

Everything in a photograph by Henry Wessel sits tonally clear and smooth across the sheet so that whatever seems to be the main subject––a sunbather, a suburban house or solitary tree––stands as just the pretext for seeing all else that is simply, and absurdly, there. By dint of being centered in the frame, the subject, like the unitary camera eye, ushers in a set of transforming binocular aftershocks. Wessel’s black and white images are head-on but his comic conceptions reveal themselves obliquely; he lets both his and our attention wander enough to discover the multiplicity in any range of facts.

In Richmond, California, 1989, the frontal view of a two-story cottage looks normal enough to be mounted in a realtor’s window, except that every inch of architecture and shrubbery has something uncanny or patently wrong about it. The nutty, smaller-than-life cottage, pitched against one of Wessel’s cloudless aquatint skies, sings of some unconscious planning error. Its nuclear family of three disproportionate aluminum clapboard eaves poses stiffly atop cruddy flagstone walls that fritter around the respective jambs of an oak door and a garage. This domestic trifle comes across as off pitch and less humdrum than visionary. Someone had the bright idea to crop a cypress bush so it fits one corner of the garage entry to a T: did that person know that the sun at the appointed hour would throw the bush’s shadow moodily across the door slats to fill out the missing chunk? One might think that the photographer has made the whole thing up, that Wessel staged the view instead of making it out wittily for what it has become––an occasion of lifting from the midst of reality its affectionate if blunt self-caricature.

Wessel’s pictures hold palpable light to a degree that few contemporary photographs do. Insensitivity to light is a fairly general photographic paradox and probably accounts for most of the diminution in what Peter Schjeldahl recently termed photography’s “short esthetic track.” Most art photography reduces observable light to a punctuation in the service of texture and contour; once its mechanical trick is done, light defers to a leftover graphic definition, the close-fisted markings of frozen pathos or satire. The blithe-looking light with which Wessel bathes his imagery is deliberate and stands for itself. It’s the principle––the rational element, almost––by which Wessel finds his way to soak up the peculiarity of a scene. Supple, clear daylight or the immediacy of the photographer’s flash reflected from a hard surface (for instance, the gleaming modular bath stall against which a naked, half-tanned boy tenses in Nick, Cape Cod, 1986) convinces you that things appear as they were when the shutter clicked, even though the sum total of this appearance is a mass of incongruities.

Wessel’s bright epigrams teeter on symmetrical perfection: there’s always something in the middle, but the composition keeps showing you its edges. The spread of tones—from a creamy, billowing white to spots of absolute, lacquered black, with a wealth of grays between—feels eventful. Elongated triangles, trapezoids, and other more irregular shapes at the sides of the prints jog the wide-angled views, so that the basic photographic rectangle seems to add on facets as you notice the spaces it contains. Spatially and conceptually, Wessel puts the emergent joke before your eyes without a cincher; repeatedly, a picture will lay out its anecdotal particulars to be read in a different conjugation—just as gently balanced, more baffling than before, indissoluble from the perceptual event.

Bill Berkson