|Subject: Henry Wessel, American photographer and educator made "obdurately spare and often wry black-and-white pictures of vernacular scenes in the American West", in his 50+ year career, dies at 76. ...
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Date Posted: Thursday, September 27, 04:23:02am
Henry Wessel, 76, Dies; Photographed Glimpses of the Vast West. ¡
By Philip Gefter / New York Times
September 25, 2018
Henry Wessel Jr., a distinguished photographer of the American West who captured not so much its vast grandeur as its small moments of daily life the roadside novelty, the trimmed shrubbery, the man in a business suit on an empty beach died Friday at his home in Point Richmond, California. He was 76.
The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, Calvert Barron, his partner of 38 years, said. Wessel had been undergoing treatment for lung cancer, she said.
Wessel, whose work resides alongside that of the most admired artists of his generation, worked in a classic documentary tradition for nearly 50 years, photographing the world as he happened upon it.
And yet his subtle and straightforward observations owed more to the imagist poets, like William Carlos Williams, than to the photojournalistic reportage of, say, Henri Cartier-Bresson. The imagists wrote laconic verse with hard-edge description, creating precision-cut mental images a quality Wessel's pictures share.
His spare black-and-white glimpses of vernacular scenes in the American West are characterized by a wry objectivity: the lone sign for ice sticking up in an empty desert landscape, a gabled California bungalow obscured by a lawn of uncut, roof-high reeds.
Wessel was never without his Leica and always alert to what was going on around him.
Most musicians I know don't just play music on Saturday night, he told The New York Times in 2006. They play music every day. They are always fiddling around, letting the notes lead them from one place to another. Taking still photographs is like that. It is a generative process. It pulls you along.
He was enthralled by the West from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles in 1969.
I walked out of the airport into one of those clear, sharp-edged January days, he said. The light had such physical presence; it looked as though you could lean against it. That physicality of light is a feature of so many of his photographs. The high Western light that fills his pictures seems almost hallucinatory, Tod Papageorge, former director of the graduate program in photography at Yale, wrote in an email to The Times in 2006. I think this had a strong influence on photographers who followed him in the later '70s.
John Szarkowski, the legendary curator of photography, gave Wessel a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. He was 30.
The next year, Szarkowski put one of Wessel's pictures in his seminal book, Looking at Photographs. His work was also included in the 1975 landmark exhibition, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.
And he was given three retrospective exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1998, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2007, and at Die Photographische Sammlung in Cologne, Germany, in 2007. In one of his best-known images, Santa Barbara, Calif., 1977, he took a picture of a man standing on a lawn staring at a flock of birds in flight at eye level. Wessel had been standing at a bus stop at the time, his eye caught at first by the axial light of the early morning sun.
As I approached this scene, the birds were feeding in the grass, he said. Startled for some reason, they took flight. I instinctually shot, exposing three frames before they were gone. When I look at it now, I marvel at how much of the world is hidden in the flux of time.
Wessel was a cornerstone of the photography program at the San Francisco Art Institute, joining its faculty in 1973. He taught by example. He made a point of telling students that after he took his pictures, developed the film, and printed the contact sheets, he put them away for a year before he selected the images he thought might be enduring.
If you let some time go by before considering work that you have done, you move toward a more objective position in judging it, he said. The pleasure of the subjective, physical experience in the world is a more distant memory and less influential.
By limiting his tools to a single camera, a Leica, with one type of lens, 28 millimeter, over the years, his sense of how light translates to film, and then to paper, became instinctive, Wessel said. When photographing, he instructed his students, the most important choices were where to stand and when to shoot. But he would have been hard-pressed to define what goes into those decisions.
Part of it has to do with the discipline of being actively receptive, he told The Times. At the core of this receptivity is a process that might be called soft eyes. It is a physical sensation. You are not looking for something. You are open, receptive. At some point you are in front of something that you cannot ignore.
Harry Wessel Jr. was born on July 28, 1942, in Teaneck, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Ridgefield. He studied psychology at Penn State University, graduating in 1966. At an off-campus bookstore where he worked he came upon Szarkowski's book The Photographer's Eye and through it discovered the work of Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Wright Morris and Garry Winogrand.
It was such a revelation that he abandoned psychology as a professional goal and pursued photography.
Hank, as Wessel was known to friends, was part of a post-Beatnik, pre-Hippy downtown group, recalled Susan Kismaric, a former curator of photography at MoMA who attended Penn State at the same time as Wessel in the mid-1960s.
He had a gigantic white smile and thick dark hair, she said by email. He was very fit riding around on a black motorcycle in his tight black T-shirts and bluejeans. He could be very playful and a lot of fun.
Lee Friedlander called him the Photo Buddha
because he smiled and laughed all the time. …
Wessel married Meredith Benz in 1969, and they had a son, Nicholas, who survives him. The couple divorced in 1979. Barron is his only other immediate survivor.
Wessel was the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and two National Endowment for the Arts grants. His work has recently been the subject of monographs and a five-volume set published by Steidl. In his later years he grew rueful about the multiplicity of images afforded by digital photography and social media.
People don't pay much attention these days to the descriptive, expressive and suggestive facts found in a good still photograph, he said. Then he offered a clue to what motivated him:
The process of photographing is a pleasure: eyes open, receptive, sensing, and at some point, connecting. It's thrilling to be outside your mind, your eyes far ahead of your thoughts.
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