Henry Wessel clearly remembers the first body of photographs to make a distinct impression on him. As a fourteen year old, in 1956, he was fascinated by the Polaroids and 8×10 glossies displayed in his mother’s New Jersey real estate office, made by the sales staff to pique clients’ interest in their homes’ “curbside appeal.” The pictures were no more or less remarkable than those that appear in countless realtors’ windows today, but Wessel remembers liking the directness of the photographs as well as their subject: houses that people live in.
For the past twenty years Wessel has given us doggedly unpretentious photographs of the way vernacular America looks. With his most recent work, which was made during 1990 and 1991 and is his first sustained project in color, he returns full force to the subject of his early interest. Grounded in the familiar conventions of “real estate photography,” Wessel’s portraits of houses are records of ideals, ambitions, battles won and lost, the exigencies of economics and hard-nosed American pragmatism. (If houses are generally supposed to put their “best face forward,” is it any wonder that we should be greeted in several of theses pictures by structures apparently swallowed whole by their garages?)
Like Walker Evans, who also saw American houses as manifestations of a complex cultural fabric, Wessel respects the individuality of his subjects. Each has an explicit personality, and every detail (or lack thereof) is acknowledged as the product of someone’s conscious decision. In Wessel’s view, the architecture of these houses reflects the human beings who built and live in them as distinctly as genetics define a face. We should not be surprised to find his pictures simultaneously comic and melancholy, modest and proud.—from the introduction by Jeffrey Fraenkel