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Matinee: 'Henry Wessel' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

9 August 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the forty-fifth in our series of Saturday matinees today: KQED Spark's 8-minute segment on Henry Wessel.

Originally aired in 2007 on the occasion of a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art retrospective featuring 80 of his images. The segment opens with an animated Wessel at the exhibit.

"All of this," Wessel says, pointing to the image of man observing his shadow stretching across a lawn to a palm tree, "is hidden from our eye. You can only see it ... I mean it's hidden in the flux of time."

Time is a key factor in Wessel's method. But not time as in shutter speed. Time as in the time it takes for you to discover a scene you want to shoot and the time it takes you to take the shot.

He presets his camera and works fast, "like an animal." Without thinking. He fires off several shots before he has a chance to consider the composition. In the instant that would take, he says, whatever it was you were looking at is gone. You are shooting a different subject.

"When we look at our past," he says, "we reorder it. The future? We can do the same thing. The present is chaos." Ordering chaos, he says, is what still photography is.

He discusses his approach a bit more in this SFMOMA interview. And in another SFMOMA interview he talks about getting up at 3:33 a.m. with his gear waiting for him as he jumps into his clothes to shoot part of his "Night Walk" series.

A film photographer, Wessel stores his contact sheets in boxes arranged in a tidy filing system at his studio. Time plays a role here too. Wessel stores his contacts for years before reviewing them. In the video, he looks over contacts made five years before.

There's a point to this. "I forget about the subjective experience of taking the picture. Which is always pleasurable," he explains.

He wants to be free of that pleasure when he looks at the contacts, to see if the image itself is interesting.

You'd think, he laughs, that a series of images taken within a few seconds would look like each other. "They don't. The world is so constantly in flux that each one is different."

He does his own printing, explaining that he produces a negative that has as much information as possible, "which is the way the world is. Every surface is described in the world."

The craft is to duplicate the light in the physical world. If the print feels like that, "it's a good print."

A print of an image that orders the chaos of a world in flux so we have the time to appreciate its beauty. Sounds like poetry to us.

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