Photo Books

Henry Wessel, Mitch Epstein, Chad States

BY Vince Aletti, November 1, 2011

Although he was among the photographers included in the historic 1975 New Topo-graphics exhibition and catalog, Henry Wessel tends to get overshadowed by most of the others, notably Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams. His latest book, Waikiki(Steidl), dispels that shadow with a blast of tropical light. Wessel made the images (which are neither captioned nor dated) on trips to Hawaii’s most popular tourist destination beginning in the late 1970s; only a few have been published before, and even those pictures look fresh in the book’s flawlessly paced sequence. The subject is leisure, American-style: ennui, eroticism, and self-improvement under the palms. The approach is understated, amused, cool; skeptical but not judgmental. Wessel’s black-and-white prints look pale and silvery, like they’d sat too long in the sun. It’s a seductive effect, leaving you as blissfully dazed as the sunbathers, and ready for a nap in one of the hotels that line the beaches like displaced tower blocks. With all the pointlessly oversized slabs around, a modest, handsome, sharply focused book like Wessel’s is all the more satisfying.

Mitch Epstein’s Berlin (Steidl), the result of a recent residency at Berlin’s American Academy, is similarly understated—a model of restraint, considering the charged subject of a Jewish American photographer negotiating a city still defined by its Third Reich landmarks and World War II ruins. Epstein, who calls Berlin “more complicated and poignant than any [city] I’d known, except Hanoi,” sought out and photographed “remnants  of…tormented wartime and postwar histories,” many of which had accrued their own histories of neglect, misuse, and restoration. His book, which begins in a Jewish cemetery and ends at a dismal rose garden originally planted by Stasi prisoners, is a guided tour of a city whose inhabitants have been careful to preserve what Epstein describes as “traces of the worst of themselves in their architecture and landscape.” Brief, meticulous captions tweeze out the layers of construction and destruction in otherwise unremarkable sites, and Epstein’s photographs are just as carefully descriptive. But he never really leaves that graveyard, and, perhaps inevitably, a tense, hushed melancholy pervades the work and gives Berlin an elegiac but decidedly unsentimental aura.

Chad States investigates a very different sort of charged landscape in Cruising (powerHouse), a book that at first glance seems to be about sun-dappled woods—the sort of circumscribed wilderness that still exists on the edge of America’s suburban sprawl. But there are figures among the foliage, some barely seen—like a bird flickering through the leaves—others in plain sight. Along with the photographer, men are watching and waiting. When they connect, States usually drops back and observes from a distance, but sometimes he’s just a few bushes away and the only things hidden are the faces of men too busy grappling with their pants around their ankles to worry about who’s looking on. The obvious precedent here is Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park, but that book’s views of voyeurs skulking around couples making out in Tokyo public parks at night had a comically grotesque quality. States’s subjects are more abandoned than furtive, and his photographs, while even more frankly erotic than Yoshiyuki’s, aren’t lurid or sensational. In the lively conversation with Alec Soth that closes the book, States says he thinks of the work as “a love story.” I’m not buying that, but sex in these sunny, idyllic settings looks, if not romantic, then recreational—as healthy and invigorating as a walk in the woods.