Henry Wessel: Night Walk No. 55, 1998
Darkness or shadows are correlates to light, night the counterpart to day. While such associations can be understood as natural phenomena, they can also describe realms of sensual experience or states of being that inevitably involve a change in perception. What by day appears familiar and nameable can at night turn into something quite different: puzzling shapes, phantasmagoric forms, disturbing atmospheres.
The American photographer Henry Wessel Jr. (1942–2018) captured this imposing tree—most likely a California sycamore—in 1998 on one of his nocturnal walks through a residential neighborhood in Los Angeles. Its trunk and branches fill more than two-thirds of the composition, while a modest one-story American suburban home is set in the background behind a small strip of lawn and sidewalk. But it is the luxuriant, almost ornamental growth of the tree itself that establishes the scene; its branches reach upward, evoking the tentacles of some amorphous creature. Wessel probably took the shot from across the street, perhaps making deft use of a street lamp’s cone of light. The brightness gives an almost white glow to the tree’s surface, while the protruding branches create correspondingly stark shadows. The surrounding darkness is thus lent a certain transparency—the picture’s composition unfolds magical aspects and a quality of somehow being on a set.
In an interview in 2015, Wessel described his work on the series, which he began in the 1990s. Waking between three and four o’clock in the morning, he would use the time remaining until daybreak to walk through the slumbering streets with his camera and tripod and take photographs. Night Walk was the title he gave each motif taken in this manner, simply assigning it a number and year, without supplying a place name or any kind of allegorical or associative reference.
Residential streets and housing developments—in short, the American habitat—were topics of abiding interest to Wessel from the mid-1960s onwards. Two Guggenheim fellowships (in 1971 and 1978) and his move from New York to California were extremely influential for his creative process. The Californian light in particular captivated him and left a lasting mark on his compositions.
Wessel belongs to the generation of the “New Topographics,” and his work appeared alongside that of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore in the legendary 1975 exhibition of that name at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized his first solo exhibition in 1972. Wessel taught at the San Francisco Art Institute for three decades.
Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Köln