This Week in Photography Books: Henry Wessel

 

 

I’ve been to Southern California at least twenty times in my life, and I’ve always had a car.

Every. Single. Time.

You’ve got to have a car in Southern California.
(Or so I thought.)

Back in May, a friend told me she’d just gotten around LA using ride-sharing services, which for some reason are insanely cheap at the moment. (Much less expensive than taxis.)

She made me half-swear that I wouldn’t rent a car the next time I went to LA. So when I visited the city last week, I subsisted on cabs and Ubers alone, even though I wasn’t able to download Lyft or Uber on my phone the day before I left. (Long and boring story. I’ll spare you.)

I must say, not having immediate access to go where I wanted, when I wanted, was a seriously uncomfortable feeling.

It’s no surprise that cars are symbolically associated with freedom. I guess if I had a new Iphone, and my own ride-sharing app, that feeling might have abated, but I’m not so sure.

As one who’s lived in the American West for a chunk of my life, I know that things only work at car distances. Otherwise, the cities and towns dotted from the Rockies to the Coast would never truly be connected.

Cars are almost like water out here, in how necessary they are for survival.

We all crave the revelatory feeling of being on the open road somewhere, with your favorite music blasting. The yearning for discovery and adventure is hardwired into the human experience.

It’s the opposite feeling, in every way, to being stuck in traffic, staring at the same cars for an hour, while you inch along a concrete ribbon, and you could probably walk faster if you really tried.

Everyone hates that feeling.

Everyone.

The traffic-anger, which I felt getting in and out of LAX, reminded me of a photobook I’d looked at just before I left New Mexico, and which sits before me this very moment: “Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide,” by Henry Wessel, recently published by Steidl.

It’s one of the best books I’ve seen in a long time, (no doubt,) and features three of his seminal projects from the past. Mr. Wessel, if you’re not familiar, was a part of the famed “New Topographics” movement, documenting the California cultural landscape with a dry eye over many decades.

The thing that makes the “Traffic” pictures so immediate for me is the way he boxes in the compositions. We never see the front or back of the cars he’s showing us. You never get the compositional freedom, the fresh air, of open space.

Frankly, these pictures are great. They’re just so damn Californian. And all the period cars and outfits? What more do I have to say?

(Well, I guess I now see Lee Friedlander’s Post-Millennial series “America by Car” as being in dialogue with this project.)

But the “Sunset Park” images were my favorites, for sure.

Like many of you, I read the recent New Yorker profile of Gerhard Steidl, which presented him as a cross between Steve Jobs and Jesus. I won’t say it seems excessive, because I believe all these people, but I wasn’t a Steidl cultist before looking at this book.

And now I am.

The separations are mind-boggling. I’ve never seen shadow detail like this, in conjunction with three dimensional reproductions that pop off the page.

The luminosity of a few of these pictures compares to looking at a retina display, and I don’t understand how that’s possible.

Apart from the technical virtuosity, though, I love this group of images, and it reminds me that we understand so much of art by what has come before.

I lived in San Francisco back in the day, and saw Todd Hido’s “House Hunting” show at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery around 2000. It’s the exhibition, and project, that shot Mr. Hido to stardom, as the creeper-stalking-outside-people’s-houses-at-night vibe, along with the sharpness and color, was super-memorable for me.

Now that I’ve seen this book, though, I know that Todd Hido was heavily influenced by “Sunset Park,” as Mr. Wessel is a Bay Area legend, and longtime professor at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Last week, when I saw this book, I had that thought. And then this Saturday, at the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, right there in their Summer group show, they had one of those Hido pictures hung just below one of Wessel’s.

No lie.

The “Continental Divide” series, the last of the bunch, is my least favorite. If I’m being honest, it seems to wrap up our little summer conversation about books by locals vs. travelers.

For me, the California pictures are more original, as they spring from deep knowledge. In the Western pictures, on road trips around dusty towns, Mr. Wessel was exploring, rather than reporting from his own little spot in the world.

The images look far less distinctive to me than the Colorado pictures by Robert Adams, Mr. Wessel’s contemporary, and I don’t think that should surprise any of us, at this point.

We ought to know more about our own world than the places we just visited for the first time.

Right?

Bottom Line: Masterpiece book, featuring work by a San Francisco legend

To purchase “Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. I am an unabashedly enthusiastic Henry Wessel fanboy. Don’t think the guy could take a bad photo if he tried. I saw his show at SFMOMA a few years back, and just before you entered the gallery featuring his work, you had to come face to face with a giant, wall sized, color colossus of a photo from Mitch Epstein’s American Power essay. Great! How was Wessel’s considerably smaller B&W prints gonna compete after having your senses consumed by that Monolith? Very well indeed! Wessel’s photographs are the most impeccably printed 35mm B&W prints ever created and assembled, the polished jewels of an incredibly sharp and insightful vision.

    This is the kinda guy that makes you as ask, “Why didn’t I see that?” No matter where you go…