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In Henry Wessel’s Photos of '90s Richmond Homes, Lives Are in The Details

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Henry Wessel, 'No. 911714,' 1991. (Courtesy the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. © Henry Wessel)

Spending time with Henry Wessel’s Real Estate Photographs, 40 color photographs taken from a car window of houses in and around Richmond, Calif., in 1990 and ’91, I began noticing garden hoses.

The series is part of Pier 24 Photography’s 16-person group show, The Grain of the Present, which pairs artists from the Pier’s collection — all key figures in 20th-century photography — with contemporary artists who share interests or approaches with their predecessors.

Wessel is one of those key figures. The Richmond-based artist, now 75, was born in New Jersey and began his career as a photographer in the late 1960s. Soon after, he permanently relocated to the Bay Area, drawn to California’s light, which he describes as having a strong physical presence. He’s photographed houses since he shot his first roll of film in 1966.

Henry Wessel, 'No. 90659,' 1990.
Henry Wessel, ‘No. 90659,’ 1990. (Courtesy the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. © Henry Wessel)

While much of the work in Grain of the Present shares an emphasis on everyday life — houses, cars, families, cafes, diners and rural landscapes feature prominently throughout the exhibition — many pieces also share an indexical approach.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Momme Silhouettes documents the movement of silhouettes behind a floral curtain. The Little Screens gathers 50 Lee Friedlander photographs of 1960s television screens in various settings (on bed stands, in hotel rooms), featuring images of dancers, bikers and Hubert Humphrey. And where would any discussion of photographic indexes be without Bernd and Hilla Becher, masters of documenting industrial ruins, whose seemingly disinterested work borders on architectural typologies?


Wessel’s Real Estate Photographs seem at first to fall into this typological category. One could view it as a collection of dispassionate studies on the materials, forms, colors and flora of Richmond. In book form, the series lends itself to this reading, but an entirely different perspective emerges in the gridded installation of the work at Pier 24.

It was in this view that I noticed the garden hoses. Some were precisely rolled up, some haphazard; others were stretched across the lawn or entirely missing, explaining dying or dead grass. These subtle visual cues suggest Wessel’s photographs are as much portraits of the homes’ inhabitants as they are portraits of the structures themselves.

Henry Wessel, 'Rodeo Beach,' 1987.
Henry Wessel, ‘Rodeo Beach,’ 1987. (Courtesy the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. © Henry Wessel)

“If you consider part of the content to be experiential, then any time the vehicle that delivers the work changes, the content of the work will be subject to change,” Wessel says of the difference between Real Estate Photographs in publication and exhibition formats. “The experience of turning pages in a book and looking at an individual photograph is radically different than the experience of standing in front of a grid containing 40 6-by-9-inch photographs taken from a similar vantage point,” he continues.

Viewers like myself — even Wessel — can never know who lives in these houses, and the conclusions we draw about those inhabitants may be incorrect, misguided or even prejudiced. But each crack in the paint, every well-manicured lawn, string of Christmas lights, or errant piece of trash is a signifier begging to be interpreted. And who can help but to oblige?

Of the Real Estate Photographs, Wessel says he was “playing around with the notion that a neutral, transparent shape to the photographs, like the photographs we see in the window of a real estate office, would be the perfect form to carry descriptive content that needed to appear authentic.”

Henry Wessel, 'Pink Cup,' 2002.
Henry Wessel, ‘Pink Cup,’ 2002. (Courtesy the artist and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. © Henry Wessel)

In a welcome exhibition pairing, an adjacent room in the Pier 24 gallery houses 21 black-and-white Wessel photographs from across the United States, spanning 1968 to 2002. Personal and subjective, most of these images appear in a book aptly titled Odd Photos. While Real Estate Photographs are subtle and difficult to decipher, Wessel calls the “odd photos” one-liners, or “little gifts from the world.”

In Walapai, Arizona, emblematic of the series, Wessel captures the visual irony of a simple sign advertising ice on a barren, and presumably hot, stretch of the Mojave Desert.

But it is Odd Photos’s images of people and domestic life that best complement the neutrality of Real Estate Photographs. In a photograph of a rocky beach, the lower half of a sunbathing person’s legs peek out from a large boulder, humorously melding organic and inorganic matter. In another work, a cup rests precariously on the edge of a kitchen table, seeming to defy gravity, while a rubber duckie and a dirty dishrag fill space in relatively tidy kitchen.

With these works, it is as if Wessel allows viewers to walk through one of the Richmond homes’ front doors to witness the lives concealed, represented or misrepresented by architecture.

‘Grain of the Present’ is on view at Pier 24 in San Francisco through Jan. 31, 2018. For more information, click here.

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