Henry Wessel’s Incidents

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Henry Wessel, Incidents No.27
Henry Wessel, Incidents No.27© Henry Wessel, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

We consider Henry Wessel's enigmatic series Incidents, timeless, fleeting snapshots of Californian life, alongside quotes from the artist himself

Legendary American photographer Garry Winogrand once said: “there is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” A sentiment well suited to the enigmatic quality of Henry Wessel’s sun-drenched Incidents. A series of 27 black and white photos without dates, titles, or specific place information; each is a timeless Californian moment – with bikinis, cars and bare chests all framed by concrete, lawns and metal fences. Originally from New Jersey, Wessel visited California in the 1970s and was taken by the potential of its all-encompassing white light. Since then he has made the state’s landscape and population his primary subject in a body of work spanning decades. Here he discusses his process and how he’s taking us all on a walk through West Coast Americana.

“There is the world, and there is the photograph. The photograph is not the world, it’s a completely different thing.”

“When you’re photographing, you’re walking through the world, something catches you – you’re connecting with it, you’re responding to it, you’re saying yes to it.”

“You’re a free agent between your instinct, your anticipation and your intelligence. All of those things keep moving back and forth in a fluid way while you’re photographing – it’s really exciting; it’s the reason that I take photographs. That and the way photographs look, the way they describe the world.”

“After I photograph I wait quite a while before I actually look at the stuff; a year, two years – sometimes longer. I need to be distant from the subjective experience so I can see what the photograph itself contains.”

“For this series I put all the photographs up on the walls. I began to live in the world of the photographs and walk past them, just like I might walk past a tree or a corner in the actual physical world.”

“There is a distinct physical dimension that’s being described in these photographs. In general terms we’d think of it as vantage point, and it forms a contention between the viewer looking and the scene they’re looking at; it’s the connective tissue that runs through the project.”

“You have the appearance of the photograph, you have the experiential knowledge of the viewer and you have their own imagination. And it’s that event that shapes the meaning of the photograph.”

“In may ways, Incidents is my way of saying, ‘let me take you on a walk, and we’ll start here, and as we’re walking I say, oh, look at that, wow look at that over there, look at this.’ And when the walk ends, that’s the experience.”

“Each photo in Incidents is a work without words.”

Henry Wessel Incidents is at Tate Modern.

Text by Ananda Pellarin