Henry Wessel


1942, Teaneck, New Jersey
2018, Point Richmond, Richmond

Portrait of Henry Wessel holding a small dog

Image: © Calvert Barron


For four decades, Bay Area photographer Henry Wessel has observed and documented the brilliant light, vernacular architecture, and social landscape of Northern and Southern California.

Wessel came to photography almost accidentally during his years at Pennsylvania State University, but he was immediately hooked after first discovering (with a borrowed Leica) how the world looked through the camera's lens. He began to photograph seriously in 1967, inspired by the work of Wright Morris, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand, and in 1971 he was awarded a Guggenheim grant to document the landscape that flanks the American highway system, a once-natural terrain profoundly transformed by human presence. In the 1970s, Wessel became part of a generation of artists who challenged and expanded the categories of landscape and documentary photography, foregoing traditional views of pristine nature in favor of straightforward and personal depictions of the built environment.

Exploring the territory where nature and culture meet, Wessel's deadpan pictures share the spontaneity and authenticity of snapshots, combining disarming frankness with irreverent humor. His low-key style matches the modest nature of his subject matter: he has found an inexhaustible richness in the aesthetics of the everyday, turning the least monumental of subjects into a kind of personal poetry.

Audio Stories

The artist on photographing on the road

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I take a lot of photographs from whatever vehicle I’m driving. Early on, in 1968 or when I quit my job teaching, I decided to buy a van, travel. For about a year and a half, two years, I mostly drove around the country photographing. Well, if you do that, eventually; you start seeing everything as you’re moving through the landscape. And you very quickly learn that if you stop and get out, it’s a whole different thing. It’s not what you saw at all. It may have physically the ingredients; but it’s not from where you were, it’s not from that vantage point. It’s very different. It’s radically different.  


So I said, Well, why not do both? So then I got in the habit of, as soon as I saw something that caught my eye while I was driving, I would photograph it from where I was, the driver’s seat. Or out the window of the other side, or whatever. But oftentimes, I would then stop and then explore it more, if it was something that was inherently interesting or had some dramatic content to it or something. So I’ve just continued to do that.  


You know, like they say, luck is impartial. You have just as much bad luck as you have good luck. But you can do things to prepare yourself to receive the good luck. And that’s part of the whole process of photographing. If you think of the process as being receptive. You know, you move through the physical world and something catches your eye. I photograph anything that catches my eye. That’s the best reason to photograph. 


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