“A Dark Thread” is the first major exhibition in France devoted to Henry Wessel, a key member of the generation associated with the landmark exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” (1975).
A celebrated photographer for five decades, Henry Wessel was never tired of returning to his archive of contact sheets, revisiting his work, and giving new perspectives to photographs taken decades apart. For Wessel, an avid fan of film noir and detective fiction, the real or imagined visual associations that he saw in his work suggested endless starting points for potential narratives, intensifying elements of the uncanny often already present in his scenes of everyday life. In recent years Henry Wessel made this practice his own creating a unique, mysterious vision of the places he lived in and visited, a ‘dark thread’ connecting his photographs to one another that is the focus of the MEP exhibition. It is also an opportunity to reevaluate an artist who, having been included in the major 1975 show “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”, alongside photographers such as Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Stephen Shore, has subsequently enjoyed less prominence in France.
In 1969, after travelling extensively across the United States, Henry Wessel discovered, and was enchanted by, the light of California, so he moved to San Francisco, eager to photograph everything, all the time. A prolific photographer, he worked principally in black and white, making his own prints with a characteristic soft silver tone. In addition to exhibiting and publishing critically acclaimed works including California and the West, Real Estate Photographs and Night Walks he also produced hundreds of contact sheets that he filed away in his studio. Years later, he returned to this same material, looking for any images that caught his eye and assembled them under the titles Incidents and A Dark Thread, creating correspondences between certain images and arranging them in sequences like the story boards for films. In this way he left his viewers to make connections between pictures that may have been taken years apart, and to imagine the stories they might tell.
The MEP exhibition presents three major series by Wessel. The first, Incidents, comprises 27 photographs in a precise order, like a sequence of pictures or a storyboard, using his process of free association. The second, entitled Sunset Park, is a selection of 50 images taken at night that usher the viewer into the mysterious atmosphere of Henry Wessel’s world of the Californian night. And finally, in the months before his death Henry Wessel began to put together 50 photographs for the third series in the show: A Dark Thread, which is being presented for the first time.
Henry Wessel died on 20 September 2018, leaving his last story unfinished.
“It can happen anytime, anywhere. I mean, you don’t have to be in front of stuff that’s going to make a good photograph. It’s possible anywhere,” Henry Wessel said of his work although he himself seemed, nevertheless always to be in the right place at the right time.
In addition to his working process that consisted of seeing stories everywhere; for A Dark Thread Wessel also “challenged” writers to imagine short stories based on one of his strangely suggestive images of everyday life. The three stories are presented for the first time as part of the exhibition and published in a new book produced as a collaboration between Michael Mack and the Artworkers Retirement Society.