blogging about books

Caiti Borruso
PO Box 34582
San Diego, CA

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On Henry Wessel and California
February 25, 2023

Henry Wessel
Henry Wessel
Gallery Min, Tokyo, 1987*

Night Walk
Henry Wessel
Hyde Gallery/Grossmont College, 2000*
(no ISBN)

Henry Wessel
Steidl, 2013

(* referenced at the Edmund L. and Nancy K. Dubois Library, Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, CA)

In an interview with Henry Wessel at the beginning of Henry Wessel, published in 1987,  Stefan Janaček says, “It seems that your prints have light everywhere, everything has light on it. Why do you do this?” It does feel like Wessel has somehow managed to smother every part of each print with light, reaching a careful hand into each dark corner. And Wessel responds, “I try to describe the quality of light…. In a still photograph, I think it is essential to it’s [sic] meaning. Chances are, if you believe the light, you’re going to believe that the things photographed physically existed in the world.” I might have believed the pictures earlier, but I couldn’t know them the same way. One day in the future, they will prick me for how accurate they look, California’s knobby hacked-off trees and single-family homes and disdain for streetlights.

That cactus in front of a backdrop, the evenness of the California sun. The smoothness of bodies, the shadows, how I do not understand California until I move in, until I see it for myself, how huge the sky is and how close. I feel like I am walking in someone else’s pictures. The only light at night comes from other people, their houses, their open windows and their headlights. The sky is dark, the streetlights far apart and too dim to be useful. One night, walking home in Balboa Park, I nearly stepped on a cockroach because I couldn’t see it, and walked the rest of the way with my phone’s flashlight pointed at my feet, lest I found another one. (I didn’t often see cockroaches in New York — once, they were crossing the street against me in Bushwick, and in my tipsiness it felt like the ground was swimming with cockroaches, that they were playing a cruel trick on me, crisscrossing against me and one another.)

Before I moved here — I am ashamed to say — I did not think much about California. I thought of it mostly when people I knew moved there, or where I saw photos, online, in books. It was mythical, but not the kind of myth that weighed heavy on my mind, that demanded untangling. The salient part of Henry Wessel’s photographs, and the place itself, is the description of light — that, now that I have bathed in it, a long way from home, I understand how different it is, how strong the light is. I would not describe the light in the greater New York metropolitan region as particularly strong, the way California’s light is. The difference between a patch of shade and the beam of the sun is stunning: in heat, in clarity.

In Night Walk, photographed in an unnamed western Los Angeles neighborhood, each frame holds an even grayness, shadows slowly coming to as your eyes adjust to the darkness, the careful spill of a front porch light on freshly shorn grass, a white picket fence dappled with light. Artificial light, nearly all of it, throughout the pictures — California’s strange little puddles, a gigantic, looming bird-of-paradise, unlit facades in all their grays — a faraway light eased against something in the backyard, maybe tripped by a raccoon, a lit window, ruffled curtains on the side of the house next door. The many stripes of a double-hung window’s frame, cracked, against a sheet hung for a curtain. Three moons; hardly a character — the only character may as well be the front porch light, switching on for someone coming home late, or maybe the dog-walkers. Strange things I see at night: a woman with a headlamp in her front yard, the light from the open door only reaching so far, as she towels off a dog in the dark. The details require looking, roving slowly through the neighborhood, which I normally do on my bike, in winter, when the sun has gone down before the work day has concluded.

Hard to explain, how bright the light is during the day and the lack of light at night, the opposites that day and night are in southern California and how beautifully Wessel has photographed them, has labored in the darkroom to make the pictures look as they are. How strange it is, not to know a quality of light, or understand the constraints of a picture, until you see it, until you are walking home from the bus in the evening and cannot see the sidewalk in front of you. The lawns are dark, the plants Seussian against the meager porch lights, kept low so as to not annoy the neighbors.

Incidents, published by Steidl in 2013, contains twenty-seven unpublished pictures. Whichever professor it was in undergrad that showed it to the class emphasized that number, how few pictures can be strung together to make something deeper. (Narrative, in photography and in one’s life, was still so popular then.) We flipped pages in other books, making small connections, until they made larger connections, like the book was a puzzle we were meant to solve. Incidents is comprised of incidents, of pictures full of light and of lightness. What else is it full of? Cars. Pairs. Stillness and tumbling, concrete buildings. Through the frame of the passenger-side window, in closely shorn grass, one child is on his knees, the other behind him, above him, gripping his neck. He has just fallen. He leans on his forearms in mercy. The following picture, also through the dark outline of the car window: an apartment building on the corner, two men in suits, from a distance, like the boys have grown up, left the grass, picked up a briefcase. The recycling is out. The blinds are slightly zig-zagged at the top of the stairs.

Every pair of humans in the book is touching or almost-touching; the sun gives the horny urge to touch and lingers too long, turns everything to sweat, lends itself to almost-touching. In the wide sweep of a tennis court, dotted with errant balls as the city rises up behind, a man in a suit approaches a woman in all white, racquet by his side, abandoned cart on the opposite corner. A woman puts one hand on a man’s waist, soda bottle next to his hand on the concrete wall behind him, face partly shadowed by his hat, and then, their outline, shadowed in the front door, reflected by all that sun, harsh angles of offset balconies above them. And then, a young girl, slouchy white socks, her wrist burdened by three watches, puts her head in her hands, in the reaching shade of a young tree: she is alone, hardly in the shade.

From Henry Wessel, the earliest of this trio of books in front of me: a perfectly bulbous topiary, like a children’s toy without eyes, another lurking just behind it, sun rippling across the surface, simply labeled California, 1972. A man’s perfectly creased suit pants, the shadow and jacket covering his ass, as he faces the sand and the water (the book’s cover image), bald spot neatly combed over but not concealed. Similarly, a woman’s wet, goosepimpled back in the sun, against Colorado’s cloudy sky, cracked sun glancing off her fine back hairs. Almost no one looks at Wessel’s camera, and those who do are unconvinced and unbothered. A picture famous in my own head: the flock of birds departing the grass in Santa Barbara, as a man and his shadow stand in their wake. Maybe it’s Wessel himself who has startled the birds, but not the man, who is shadowed from the knees down, watching.

One of the stranger pictures, inside and with flash, feels almost like a precursor to an Elle Pérez picture (Kirsten, 2015, from the series “Reinas”): a couple in profile, kissing or almost kissing, his lips against the side of her hair, against a brick pillar, her hand tucked into an unzipped pocket of his leather jacket, while an arm reaches across the frame, across their faces (sweatband-encircled wrist) to grab a shoulder, to grip. In the background, on the right, a man, smoking, holds his cigarette to his mouth, makes contact with Wessel — or maybe he didn’t, in the dark, until the flash popped — three forms of contact. An outlier for how many pairs the image contains, like Incidents, and the flash, the layering. The next photograph is strange too: a fluffy poodle, at a groomer, being trimmed into submission like the topiary, hand gripping its snout shut. I’m drawn to the stranger pictures, ones that could have been sewn into Incidents, like the swirly peppermint of hair on a sleeping baby’s head (Nicole, 1986) surrounded by sateen pillowcases — where again, Wessel’s light touches everything, all creases.

From Henry Wessel, 1987

From Night Walk, 2000

From Incidents, 2013