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Remembering Henry Wessel Jr. Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

22 September 2018

Photography is easy, Henry Wessel used to say. "You have two decisions to make: Where to stand, and when to press the shutter. Pressing the shutter is saying yes to the world."

The 76-year-old photographer, who was twice awarded Guggenheim fellowships, passed away at his home in Point Richmond, Calif., on Sept. 20 from lung cancer. It could not have been easy.

In addition to the Guggenheims, he also won two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in photography and has been exhibited at major museums internationally after first being included among the 10 artists in "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" in 1975. SFMOMA itself holds over 100 of his photographs in its collection, a testament to his importance.

'Pressing the shutter is saying yes to the world.'

He taught at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1973 to 2014. And has been represented by the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco and Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York.

But his career in photography was accidental. After studying at Pennsylvania State University, he borrowed a Leica and liked the world he saw through its viewfinder. Inspired by Wright Morris, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, he began to shoot seriously in 1967.

He won his first Guggenheim in 1971 to document the landscape alongside the American highway system, becoming one of the first photographers to turn from pristine landscapes to the effects of human-altered environments.

The next year his first solo exhibition was curated by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Like Winogrand's "snapshots," Wessel's landscapes were candid and irreverent, often humorously so.

Henry Wessel: Five Books: California and the West, Odd Photos, Las Vegas, Real Estate Photographs, Night Walk, a five-volume collection of his images, was published in 2005. His German publisher, Steidl, plans several additional books, the proofs of which Wessel had already reviewed before his death.

"He was an incredibly generous person," SFMOMA curator of photography Corey Keller remembered. "Everyone he came into contact with learned something from him. He always brought something to a conversation I hadn't thought about.

He is survived by Calvert Barron, his longtime partner, and his son Nicholas Ryder Wessel. A memorial event at the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco is planned for the fall.


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