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Interview: Henry Wessel

Books Interview: Henry Wessel Blake Andrews, interviewed Henry Wessel about his most recent publication, Traffic / Sunset Park / Continental Divide.
Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide. By  Henry Wessel. Steidl, 2017.

Henry Wessel (b. 1942, Teaneck, NJ) is a photographer based in California. He is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and three NEA grants, and his photographs are included in numerous private and public collections. In 1975 he was one of ten photographers included in New Topographics at George Eastman House. He is the author of several photographic monographs, including most recently Traffic / Sunset Park / Continental Divide, published in 2017 by Steidl.

Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide. By  Henry Wessel. Steidl, 2017.

Blake Andrews: Congratulations on the new book. It comes on the heels of several books of your photographs made in the past few years. And this is after a long career with not many publications. Has something happened recently to spur your increased book production?

Henry Wessel: I started making books in 1968. It was not until meeting Gerhard Steidl in 2005 that a viable opportunity to publish presented itself.

BA: Do you feel that the sequencing of your books adds a layer of complexity to the work?

HW: Absolutely. Arranging a precise sequence of photographs is similar to arranging words in a specific order to create a poem. The meaning comes from what is being described and the shape of that description. The photographic sequence is a fiction, an analogy for the thing it represents. It is about a particular experience that would not exist without the sequence.

Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide. By  Henry Wessel. Steidl, 2017.

BA: What is your understanding of chance as it relates to making photographs?

HW: Luck is impartial. A person has just as much bad luck as good luck. Some artists learn very early to ignore the bad luck and to embrace the good luck. Many photographers learn, experientially, how to anticipate good luck and then physically put themselves in a position to receive it.

BA: What do you think is the most common misconception about your photographs?

HW: If you approach any work openly, trying to ascertain from its appearance what the work is suggesting it is about, and then deciding if the work lived up to this suggestion, and finally asking yourself if it was worth suggesting, then you have taken the effort to inhabit the work, which would lead to very few misconceptions about the work.

BA: Can you describe how you found, conceptualized, and made this photograph?

Santa Barbara, 1977. Henry Wessel.

  • Found……This photograph describes a moment hidden in the flux of time. Before the photograph was taken, it did not exist. Therefore it could not be found.
  • Conceptualized……This photograph is not the kind of picture that one could have imagined. Otherwise, someone would have painted it long ago. Therefore it could not be conceptualized.
  • Made……(or “How were you able to take this picture?) If I am walking on the sidewalk in a populated area, I usually have the camera settings at a position that will describe the light, stop the action, and maximize the depth of focus. This allows me to simply point the camera and press the shutter, with very little time between recognition and response. Without a fluid, intuitive response, this picture would not have been made. Thinking would have been too slow. The event would have been over if I had taken the time to think.

Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide. By  Henry Wessel. Steidl, 2017.

BA: How often do your photographs match what you see during the moment of exposure? Are you generally surprised or are they as you expected? How does your reaction affect your interpretation?

HW: Never. I shoot film. I use a rangefinder camera. When I am looking through the viewfinder I am looking through a clear piece of glass, a window. I am seeing the physical world when I press the shutter. Later, when I print the photograph, it is no longer the physical world in my viewfinder. It is a transformation of that world into a still photograph — a new form.

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