Arts Listings

Henry Wessel: Photographing the Physical World

By Michael Howerton
Tuesday March 27, 2007

A career-spanning exhibit of the gorgeous and haunting photographs of Henry Wessel, documenting his visions of the landscape, people and light of California and the West, is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through April 22. 

Wessel, a New Jersey native, borrowed a Leica camera and fell in love while he was a psychology student at Pennsylvania State University. He opened a portrait studio in 1967, the year after he graduated, and soon after was heading west, photographing the journey.  

He arrived in California in 1970 and soon after moved to Point Richmond, where he could afford to buy a house. “For the next 30 years I made all my photography expenses against the house,” he said with a chuckle. “I now have a large mortgage on a house I once bought outright.” 

Wessel, 64, said his approach is simple: He looks for things that interest him and he takes a picture. 

“I’m a still photographer, which means that what you see in my photographs exists in the physical world. I am just recording what I’m standing in front of with as much fidelity as the medium allows,” he said. “It’s my pleasure, it’s how I make sense of the world and get through my day. For me, the most interesting place is the physical world. It’s like if we took a walk and I pointed out to you the things I see that interest me—that’s what I do with my photographs.” 

So how does he know when he sees something that will make a good photo? 

“I don’t know,” Wessel said. “If it’s something in the world that I can’t ignore, that catches my attention, I take a picture of it. Of course, 99 percent of the time what I do is a failure, it doesn’t work out. I have to wait to see how it comes out as a photo, because then it’s no longer the world itself, but a photo of it.” 

The SFMOMA exhibit comprises more than 80 prints spanning Wessel’s entire career, including some early photographs being exhibited for the first time. 

“I plan to work another 40 years so I don’t want to think of it as a retrospective; I call it a survey,” he said. 

Over the years, he said, his approach to photography has changed little. 

“It’s to record the physical world, light on surface,” he said. “I want my style to be transparent. I don’t want people who see the show to think about my style, but to just see the image on the wall, to just see it and have a physical reaction.” 

Wessel still shoots with a Leica film camera, just like the one with which he began his career. He doesn’t object to digital photography and has tried shooting with a digital camera, but said he prefers making photographs the way he always has. 

“As long as I can still get film and paper, I’ll use them,” he said. “What differentiates a photographer is not the equipment, it’s not the quality of the print, but the distinctness of the insight that is manifest in the photograph. It’s about establishing a connection and having that present in the work.” 



On display through April 22 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco. 


Photograph: Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art  

Henry Wessel’s San Francisco, 1977 is on display as part of a survey of the photographer’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.