Until August 25, the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris pays tribute to a major figure in American photography: Henry Wessel. Called A Dark Thread, the exhibition looks at the artist’s work through the lens of crime fiction. Wessel was an avid fan of the genre which served as an inspiration for his work.
Seen through his camera lens, Henry Wessel’s adoptive California seems a picture of peaceful, comfortable life: palm trees bathed in the soft Western light, a Cadillac parked with precision outside a modest, but charming bungalow. At first glance, there is no hint of the drama that unfolds in front of our eyes: a distraught woman, a jealous boyfriend, one humiliation too many, or the drab monotony of an uneventful life. Henry Wessel lends these everyday tragedies, which take place amid the indifference of fashionable suburban tranquility, a truly Hitchockian twist. Take for example the man in a raincoat, his face concealed by a hat and sunglasses; or that beautiful Latina who gazes anxiously from the back of a car; or the two kids wrestling on a well-groomed lawn.
The self-taught photographer discovered California and its singular light in 1969, during a photographic journey. Fascinated by the new landscapes of a country at the height of its power, Henry Wessel recorded every detail: highways, gas stations, billboards, motels. But when he decided to settle down in the San Francisco Bay area in 1971, his work took on a new dimension. It was there, in the cradle of Hollywood cinema, his head swimming with the words of novelists like James Ellroy and John Fante, that Wessel turned his attention to what would define the originality of his work. Like a private eye, in the dead of the night or from behind the wheel of his car, Wessel would capture everyday scenes, the goings-on in quiet neighborhoods apparently with no history. In his images, the banal becomes uncanny and the inconsequential turns into a shaky ground. A door thrown ajar, a falling shadow, a conversation between lovers, a man seated on a bench…: everything becomes suspect. The photographer would play with this ambiguity and even called this brief series of twenty-seven images, “Incidents.” The exhibition visitor enjoys strolling among these pictures as if they were an unwound videotape, disconnected frames to be threaded together.
A second sight
The severe mask of a crime fiction buff conceals a sunny disposition and a thirst for stories and adventures. A tireless hunter of images, Wessel considered photography as a “joyous, passionate activity,” which provided him with endless material for stories, mysteries, and plots that swarmed in his imagination. His photographic wanderings also gave him food for thought. He would think about what makes a good photograph, why he took it, and how one pulls it off. The exhibition is thus punctuated with quotations that reveal Wessel’s artistic approach and his conception of photography: “The process of photographing is a pleasure: eyes open, receptive, sensing, and at some point, connecting.” A believer in spontaneous, authentic photography, Wessel emphasized the incredible freedom afforded by the camera and pursued a practice unfettered by the intellect: “It’s thrilling to be outside the mind, your eyes far ahead of your thoughts.”
By Coline Olsina
Henry Wessel, A Dark Thread
From June 5 to August 25, 2019
Maison Européenne de la Photographie, 5/7 Rue de Fourcy, 75004 Paris