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By Peter Kupfer

SAN FRANCISCO, 19 MARCH 2007—Henry Wessel’s photographs are, in many respects, the polar opposite of the work of another, far more famous photographer of the American West—Ansel Adams.  Adams was a master at capturing the drama and grandeur of the Western landscape; Wessel, on the other hand, focuses on the ordinary and the mundane. Henry Wessel: Photographs , currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (through April 22), contains no sweeping vistas of majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls or dramatic cloud formations.  Instead, we are presented with desolate highways, abandoned cars, bland tract houses and people who often seem alienated from their environment and from each other.

Henry Wessel: San Francisco, 1977; gelatin silver print, Courtesy Rena Bransten
Gallery, San Francisco; Charles Cowles Gallery,New York; Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica, California; Robert Mann Gallery, New York and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne
© Henry Wessel; Photo courtesy of SFMOMA 

There are other striking differences between these two Western photographers: Adams was a master of photographic technique whose prints are technical tours de force.  Wessel’s prints tend to be so low key and naturalistic that his technique is all but invisible.  Adams’ photographs are meticulously composed and he was known to wait for hours—sometimes even for days—until the light was just right before taking a picture.  Wessel’s compositions, on the other hand, have a capricious quality to them and one gets the impression he waited just long enough to get his camera out of the case before snapping the picture.

It takes a certain amount of courage and conviction to make the kind of photographs that Wessel makes.  The subject matter is so mundane, the technique so subdued, that it would be easy to dismiss them as the work of a talented amateur.  There are pictures of majorettes twirling their batons on a Pasadena street, a telephone pole sprouting out of an empty parking lot in Los Angeles, an elaborate flower arrangement on a table in a cheesy Las Vegas hotel.  Yet it is the banality of these images that is also the source of their power.  We see in Wessel’s work a reflection of our real lives—dull and dispiriting as they may be—not the idealized, larger-than-life world captured by Adams. 

Henry Wessel: Walapai, Arizona, 1971; gelatin silver print; Collection SFMOMA
Gift of Maggie Keating; © Henry Wessel
Photo courtesy of SFMOMA

In an era when photography—and art in general—is rife with contrivance and gimmickry, one cannot help but admire the honesty and understated quality of Wessel’s work.  But it is one thing to be unpretentious and another to be boring, and, regrettably, many images in the SFMOMA show suffer from the latter.  The pictures are well executed, often informative, but few are compelling and transformative in the way that the best work of great documentary photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson or W. Eugene Smith is.

A great photographer should have a point of view.  His work should move us somehow, otherwise it is not art but merely a record of what he saw.  With Wessel’s work, I often found myself asking, What is his point of view? What is he trying to say? What possessed him to take this particular photograph in this particular way?  Often I had no answer.  The work is perhaps better suited for a museum of anthropology rather than one of modern art.  The best illustration of this was a piece titled Forty Real Estate Photographs, which is exactly that: an arrangement of 40 small color photographs of homes in Richmond, California.  The pictures are nicely composed, each one perfectly centered in the frame—and utterly boring.

Henry Wessel: Oklahoma, 1975; gelatin silver print; Collection SFMOMA
Gift of Maggie Keating; © Henry Wessel
Photo courtesy of SFMOMA

Still, there are a sufficient number of strong images in the Wessel show to justify a visit to SFMOMA. The most compelling one  (Oklahoma 1975) shows a young woman in a phone booth by the side of a desolate road, one hand pressed against the glass wall of the booth as she talks into the phone. It’s a powerful image that speaks to the emptiness and detachment of modern life. Another strong image (New Jersey 1967) depicts a lone car driving down a deserted highway on a stormy evening, its white headlights burning through the gloom. Another powerful image (Santa Monica 1993) shows a woman gazing forlornly out of the window of a closed convertible parked in front of a bungalow.  The feeling of loneliness and estrangement is palpable.  One of the most provocative images shows a shapely young woman in a short, bare-backed black dress hurrying around the corner of a motel. One can’t help wondering if she were late for a steamy liaison.  Or maybe that’s just me.

Henry Wessel: San Francisco, California, 1973; gelatin silver print; Collection SFMOMA
Gift of Maggie Keating; © Henry Wessel
Photo courtesy of SFMOMA

As fate would have it, as I was viewing the Wessel show the photographer himself appeared with a group of visitors in tow.  I took the opportunity to ask him to explain his thought process in taking pictures.  "I don’t have any thoughts," he responded.  "I work purely out of a reaction to my physical surroundings.  If I have an idea in my head it really trips me up."  Another visitor asked him to describe his creative process.  This is what he said: "What’s the creative act in photography? It’s two things: Where you stand and when you click the  shutter. That’s it."

Perhaps so.  But my feeling is that a great photograph should somehow elevate the viewer.  At SFMOMA, I often found myself standing on the curb.

Henry Wessel: Photographs
through April 22
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco
(1) 415 357 40 00

 Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. He last wrote on The Burning Man Festival for

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