Sunday, April 15, 2007

Two Henry Wessel Books from Steidl

I first became aware of the photographer Henry Wessel from seeing an image that was included in John Szarkowski's landmark book Looking At Photographs. Wessel seemed to be a photographer whose work was respected but difficult to find. A few years later I found a Gallery Minn catalog of his work and for the first time, I was able to absorb a books worth images and become more intrigued. There have been a few catalogs published of Henry's work but one disappointing aspect of them is that, for the most part, they shared many of the same photographs. The Grossmont College has published two, one in 1976 and another in 2000. The Gallery Min published a rather beautifully printed catalog in 1981. Now some photographers are prolific and others are not. I had figured Henry Wessel was in the camp of the later. Something didn't quite add up for me about that line of thinking though. He is a two-time Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of three National Endowment of the Arts fellowships. I kept thinking..."What did he do with the money and where are the photographs?"

Now Steidl has published two different volumes of Henry Wessel's work. The first was published last year and is a set of five paperback books featuring five different projects/groups of photographs (three books of black and white work and two of color) housed in a slipcase. Each of the five books averages about 30 images. This year sees the publication of the appropriately titled HenryWessel which includes 119 black and white and 14 color photographs.

I, as you may have guessed, was excited about the release of both of these titles. Especially since they were being produced by the best photographic book printer/publisher. For those of you who have seen Henry Wessel's prints first hand, the first thing you notice is that they are very luminous and achieve an extended tonal range. His prints reflect the California light that bathe his subjects. I figured, if any book publisher could achieve the quality of the original work, Gerhard Steidl could. And for the most part, in the first slip-cased set of books he has succeeded. They are nicely printed, cleanly designed and feel nice in the hand. They are, at the same time, slightly precious because of the trim size and fully functional as small showcases for small bodies of work. I also like the fact that they begin with only the briefest amount of text to set the most general of contexts and then it is just one photograph to a page, ending each book with a caption list.

The newer title is more of a traditional monograph (I assume created for the occasion of a retrospective of Wessel's photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It starts off with a lengthy essay by Sandra S. Phillips and a shorter one by Georg Imdahl. The rest of the book is spent on the photographs. Surprisingly though, this title isn't as nicely printed as one might expect. I was surprised at times by the lack of a black point anywhere in the printing. Without this, the luminous quality of his actual prints is lost in the reproduction and is rendered as simply flat which his prints are not. This was unfortunately the first of a few disappointments.

One other problem I have with this title is that it repeats a majority of the images that appear in the five book set from last year. It has a wealth of unseen images but not seemingly enough to merit a whole new book. I would have preferred the slipcase set of books include a sixth book of those images instead. That title as well could have easily served as a complete and more elegant (not to mention contemporary) version of a retrospective catalog.

The sequence from start to finish is less a journey through the landscape but a hodge-podge of 119 black and white images that finally dissipates into two sections in the end which are composed of 14 color pictures. I understand that if the book is to serve as a retrospective catalog then the inclusion of the color work is necessary but as an object that will remain long after the photographs are no longer on the wall, they seem like an after thought and serve as a disappointing ending to the book.

All in all, it is a pleasure to experience Henry Wessel's individual images in both of these titles. The exposure of his work to a wider audience is long overdue. But in thinking of necessity, one could have served better than two.

Book Available Here (Slipcase)

Book Available Here (Retrospective)