Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wessel's World

Talk to me.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Actually, any picture is worth five thousand words, at least. Photographs may seem more specific, and less flamboyant than paint, which is difficult to apply, hard to control, and may take years to master to any serious degree. But what makes a photograph powerful is at least as hard to explain as what makes an effective painting. We want to take so much for granted with photography, perhaps not realizing that the phenomenal qualities of different kinds of photographic processes determines to a very large extent how we think about images made from light sensitive materials, and what they may tell us about our conception of the process of exposure--not simply in the technical (scientific) sense, but in the sense of what we think we see in those images--what they may tell us.

Henry Wessel has been able to build a body of work which lives on the edge of discomfort--visual discomfort. But it's a subtle kind of edginess, not the head-on, over-emphatic, sentimental exaggerations of most candid photo-journalism, or the heroic, hieratic imagery of monumental objectification inherited from the Wagnerian thrust of early Modernism. Wesssl's work starts out cool, something is happening, and you think you know what it is. There is an immediate, abiding emptiness and slackness of condition in his relaxed, California landscapes along the shoreline, or in the older suburban neighborhoods, which is initially open, but which on closer examination begins to seem less accidental, more specific, maybe even a little eerie.

I always think this man looks a little like Gerald Ford, for some reason--something about the squareness of the back of his head. In any case, the photograph seems peculiar, not just because the man is standing in a full business suit on a sandy beach, but because his specific posture seems more studied, and directed, than appropriate. The "nothing" which we know about the picture's narrative isn't clarified by anything within it, so we're left holding the metaphorical bag, as it were, of the photographer's intent. The relation between his right hand, and the fall of his seamed trousers creates a tension, but this tension is not related to anything within our frame of reference.

The reason things seem to fit in the world is that they exist within a context which has a history, or a future, and a presence which links them to that continuity in time. In Wessel's work, this linkage is removed, leaving things floating in a limbo of purposelessness which is both liberating and disquieting. And we like this unsettled quality. It seems to allow us to stare at objects with an abstracted calm and sensual ease which is vacated. There's a studied aspect to his images, which invites our participation, but which carries no message or overbearing weight. All of the care and tedious attention that go into making these hedges the perfect shapes they are, is made irrelevant by their removal from anything ulterior. They belong to what they represent, but they're not going anywhere. They don't do anything. It's a balanced static, perfectly at rest, organized and held in place.

When people appear in a Wessel picture, they're not related to our presence. They go about their business without any self-consciousness or shyness. In the work of Robert Adams, or Louis Baltz, the emptied-out architecture of tracts or bulldozed land or industrial detritus, carries a hard purpose: It's repulsive, summoning your indignation and sense of creepy autonomy--and technically razor-sharp (no blurriness, no failed vision); but in Wessel, we know there's no heavy moral purpose at work. There's a settled-ness, a moment divorced from implication and desire. As much as we may try to place the picture into a context with inertia or propulsion, they don't animate. They're stuck in time.

The accidental quality of reality, of the way things don't fit, is ironically evoked by the improbability of congruence. Three juniper bushes leaning in almost perfect symmetry doesn't heighten our sense of the inevitable. They're not this way to any purpose, to please us or delight us or confound us. They're just that way because of the way the wind blows. They're accidents that yield no other meaning.

The way things look from certain places in the city always suggests a randomness brought about by other intentions--so what we see, say, through a window on a certain floor, was never planned by anyone, except in a general sense. Architects like views, but most views are the residue of necessary choices, rather than the product of deliberate preference. And skylines are perpetually changing. The beauty, here, the layered perspective and counterpoint of massing and texture, is perfectly fitted into our gestalt of the moment. Yet we have no place to go with it. It's a toy of the mind. A giant interlocking puzzle of hopes and dreams and mistakes and confused material enjambments. And it's absolutely gorgeous.

Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. But it also resists formal symmetry, at least of certain kinds. The chances, we say, of three palms lining up into a sensible arrangement is as unlikely as the chances of being dealt a royal flush. What we may call an aesthetically pleasing substitute for the deliberate symmetry of advance planning is the delight in finding one in nature, like finding a four-leaf clover. Four leaf clovers are an odds-makers delight: 1/10,000 !!

But post-Modernism has never been about symmetry. What most catches the jaded eye now is the unbalanced, the truncated, the lean, the distorted scaffold of expectation. The way things pull to their own stasis is often more compelling than what they were supposed to be, or do. Buildings and trees and animals escape from the barriers and pathways laid down to contain them. We will demarcate one precinct of the world as under the control of our resolve--a small one-bedroom bungalow, for instance--and spend the next 30 years watching it be transformed. But along the way, we live in it, we live on the ground--a founded-ness which is both reassuring, and an entrapment.

In the post-War years, the building boom caused an explosion in the construction of tidy, optimistic little places like this one. Its evident hygienic, peppermint, vanilla, trimmed simplicity is like a little space-ship to nowhere. This little house is unashamed, modest, careful, decent, but small-minded. It knows its place. It's not going anywhere, and it doesn't dream of leaving. It's happy just as it is, and that's usually how a Wessel photograph feels.

Monkeys have always been a favorite subject of photographers. In fact, animals in the zoo--no matter what kind--are as delightful to photograph as the people who come to look at them. The animals are looking at us, too, unless they've become so inured to their immediate surroundings that they've ceased to understand it the way they do when not captive. Wildness includes the ability to relate to one's changing environment: When it is fixed and hemmed-in, a certain irrelevance drops down like a curtain. I don't know what kind of animal lives in this cage, but that's rather beside the point. It's a house--not unlike some of the houses which Wessel has spent so much effort photographing elsewhere--but with the cyclone fencing surrounding it on all sides, it takes on new meaning. Metaphorically, Wessel may be telling us that the little house we live in, like the white one just above, is as locked and enclosing as a cage. And the slanted cyclone fencing may serve the same function as the curb of a sidewalk, separating the stepped layers of the public from the private. Wessel isn't an invasive artist--he's not looking to pull away exteriors, uniforms of the personal. But there's a vacancy, an emptiness which inhabits all his pictures. People wander in and out of them, but they're not important, except to themselves. And our curiosity in them is ephemeral--we don't really care what happens to them--that's not what it's about.

If there's a loneliness in Wessel's work, it's the isolation of the photographer, who's happy just to have the opportunity, the chance, to move through this quiet, unruffled, but slightly empty landscape of structures, forms, perspectives. There's an extinction of human sentiment in a picture like this one (below), in which the mated, identical queen beds in an empty bedroom, occupy a temporary place in the lives of . . . whom? They're like a scene from a Whitman Sampler.

The dance of human movement, of the flow of forms across the surface of the temporal, from one body to another, in a coordinated, choreographed ballet of variability and contingent impulse, is perfectly rendered, perfectly staged. As we move through Wessel's world, we stop and go, think, or stare idly out to sea, or across the street, or we cut diagonally across the mall parking-lot, mapping our errand, strategizing the quotidian. Wessel's world is one part of our world, and the two intersect. We can see ourselves here, but it's not our best moment. Most of our lives are composed of such segments, just going about our business, getting along, making do. Wessel owns this part; he's made it his domain.


Sunny West said...

I enjoy and concur with your thoughts on Wessel's photos. Your commentary is an astute evaluation which illuminates both the poet and the photographer in you. As always, much food for thought for us readers.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Firstly, I agree entirely with Sunny West's estimation of Faville commentary on photography and art.

Secondly, I'd just like to toss out the idea that photography cannot be considered a work of art in the sense that painting is—and I've had to work up some courage to say this since I'm not a photographer. My primary reason is that there can't possibly be the same artistic processes at work as in the case of artist with brush, palette and canvas. Are photographic and artistic processes, in other words, really the same?

I'm inclined to think that 'imagery' is the limiting factor, and that we're really compelled to attribute the brilliance of simple light-effect (which is really what we must mean by great photography)to luck only: in fact, the 'man on the beach' photo could have been shot by an amateur.

After all, how could the photographer have really intended the pant fold to represent a tension, except perhaps as a creative after-thought? Is not the resemblance to Gerald Ford, by this estimation of the picture, as intentional as the "fall of his seamed trousers"? How much more problematic are representations of "history, or a future, and a presence"?

On the other hand, judgements about tonality, contour and figural representations (as in a van Gogh or Francis Bacon) must be made by the artist both before and during composition. Really good sculpture or modern expressionist painting can never by nature be a one-off. Can they?

I take issue here, most of all, with the claim that "Architects [and by analogy photographers) like views, but [that] most views are the residue of necessary choices, rather than the product of deliberate preference." I see, in fact, no "necessity" at work here at all. Slanting junipers or languid bodies or the "trimmed simplicity" of 50s Americana could in no way have been offered as "portraiture". Can the photographer-artist in 2011, restricted only to contemporary landscapes & human communities, capture a sense of the brutality & despaire of, say, 30s America that's every bit as moving as Dorothea Lange's? If s/he can, I'll call it art.

If view alone then were necessary to produce the artistic "image", captured both in intention and the most adroit exploitation of "processes of exposure", the modernists & avant-gardists would have seen the "machine" as a real threat to human creativity. They didn't seem actually to be too bothered by it,at most a spur to more creative work. They had other things like an emergent film genre to worry about. Adorno, in his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" mirrors this sentiment, saying "the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child's play as compared to those raised by the film."

Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for the long detailed response. This is real engagement.

First, my comment about architects' intentions refers only to the picture of city buildings, not to any of the other images.

The argument you're taking up about the valuation of photographic technology/technique in terms of the uniqueness of art is an old one which never seems to die. If you knew how hard it was/is to make a preferred photograph print which holds what you're trying to accomplish, you'd be more respectful (intellectually respectful, I mean) about it. These black and white silver images are located precisely in a segment of time linked to the technology. Prints made in the 1920's or 1930's, or 1970's, will all look different because the photographic paper (for silver prints) was changing. This may seem trivial but it's not. The "coolness" we perceive in Wessel isn't just his vision--it's the impact of his eye THROUGH the available materials.

We're now entering the digital age for photographic print-making. What's done now won't bear much resemblance to work done before. It may seem superficially similar, but it will be different technically, AND aesthetically.

The point about a good photograph isn't that "anyone could have taken it" or "you could make an unlimited number of copies of the original" (which isn't really true, but let's not deal with that for the moment). The point is that someone DOES take a certain picture, and husbands it all the way through the process of its chemical transformation and its "interpretation" into a final image (it's not easy--it doesn't just happen like magic). There's chance and opportunity, decision and impulse, and the whole process of making a print from a negative at a given scale involves many small or large adjustments, and it's a creative PROCESS, not a dull industrial procedure. Things keep changing, there's a synergy between artist and image that continues all the way through. You look at the print in the fixing tray, but it won't look that way when it's dried. Photographic prints paper (or the new digital printer papers) don't report necessarily what you expect, or what you want. They're obstreperous! Bear all this in mind in judging the apparent effects of a photograph. The process of deciding upon the effects possible in a photograph are no less numerous or challenging than a painter's choosing, say, in what color or texture, or at what angle an object is to be done. The efficiency of lenses doesn't cheapen the aesthetic challenge, but it's a different process from painting or sculpture.

Photography influenced painting, in ways we probably can't summarize yet. Certainly abstraction and the manipulation of "reality" occurred because photography had appropriated that function away from painting. It was no longer necessary (or desirable) to "imitate nature" since it could be done so much more efficiently with this new tool. Was that a "bad" influence? It's a big question.

There's so much more to say on the subject!

Anonymous said...

Fagville's usual bland SF nihilism

Curtis Faville said...


Pls note the subtitle to the blog. We don't just talk about German philosophy and the blockbuster Modernist novels and poems. And politics usually descends into name-calling.

In any case, blogs aren't the best place to do that. Books are better.

No one lives by bread alone--or certainly not by choice.

Anonymous said...

why yes, Sir Fagville, I couldn't help but note the lengthy discussions of Kunt and Bagel. Voonderbar!