A dirty kitchen, a motionless man watching a flock of birds taking flight, a woman disappearing around the corner of a motel building — these are the kinds of seemingly mundane scenes photographer Henry Wessel has been capturing since the 1960s. But under his careful hand and watchful eye, these scenes are transformed into unique and unforgettable images of life in the American West, and in California in particular, that led the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to launch a major retrospective of Wessel’s work in 2007.
“He’s a photographer’s photographer — a craftsman of the highest caliber,” says Corey Keller, an associate curator of photography at the SF MOMA.
Indeed, Wessel — who is one of the Bay Area’s most respected artists — is often credited with changing the art world’s perspective on landscape photography. Wessel began traveling around the country taking pictures in 1967 and was immediately drawn to the quality of light in California. Shortly after, he moved to the Golden State, so that he could photograph year-round. Spark takes a walk with him and his camera.
“It can happen anytime, anywhere. I mean, you don’t have to be in front of stuff that’s going to make a good photograph. It’s possible anywhere,” says Wessel, whose process involves finding intrigue in everything.
A prolific photographer who works mostly in black and white using a manual camera, Wessel prints hundreds of contact sheets each year and stores them in his studio. Years later, after he has had time to distance himself from the images, he will sift through them, looking for the special ones that catch his eye.
“You’re suddenly seeing the coherence and the interconnectedness of everything, left to right, top to bottom, front to back. It’s all connected, and, somehow, it’s all in balance. And that’s, of course, when you go, ‘Yes!'” says Wessel.
Born in 1942 and raised in New Jersey, Henry Wessel earned a B.A. in psychology from Pennsylvania State University and an M.F.A. in photography from the State University of New York. He is the recipient of three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and two Guggenheim fellowships. Wessel has been living in Point Richmond since the early 1970s and is a resident faculty member of the San Francisco Art Institute.