Thoughts about street photography and devoted educator Henry Wessel

And briefly: Eliott Erwitt, Larry Fink, Garry Winogrand

I like to think of street photography as a way to glimpse the countless humans stories of people as they move through the world in their separate lives, each different and unknowable, but no less important than our own. When at it’s best, street photography can become a visual representation of “sonder” (one of my favorite words):

Sonder: The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.

In other words, despite the fact that it feels like we’re the protagonist, we’re actually all bit actors with walk-on parts and small background stories. And, if you think about it, this is a good thing. Do you really want to be responsible for carrying the main storyline? I can barely remember my lines as it is.

Two examples of black and white street photography. The left one, made by Eliott Erwitt, features an elderly woman playing a slot machine that has the appearance of a cowboy. The right image, by Larry Fink, features a woman dancing, caught mid-spin, with her braid extending horizontally behind her.
Left: “USA. Las Vegas, Nevada. 1954” by Eliott Erwitt. Right: Image from “Social Graces” by Larry Fink. © Eliott Erwitt and © Larry Fink, respectively.

Elliot Erwitt and Larry Fink (RIP)

In the world of street photography, the ‘big names’ are Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Freelander, Garry Winogrand, Elliott Erwitt, and Larry Fink. The images of these artists show the truth of the infinite stories of being human, in so much that photography can ever tell the truth (which, is to say, it never does). Regardless, their pictures are pure sonder.

I started writing this because both Erwitt and Fink died in November, 2023. A lot of folks have written about them in recent weeks, talking about their work and legacy and what they meant to street photography and to photography in general.

While thinking about how I could contribute to the conversation, I (belatedly) discovered the loss of another street photographer, Hank Wessel (d. 2018), my former teacher.

First, a bit about street photography

Street photography is an art of chance, luck, timing, skill…

Street photography is primarily concerned with making candid (unposed) photographs of people in a public space (e.g. ‘on the street’, though not all street photography is literally made there). As a genre, it features unstaged scenes and relies on random chance, active seeing, and perfect timing by the photographer. Street photographers hone quick reflexes and work with intuition. They develop the ability to anticipate how people and the environment will resolve into a photograph, and then react in realtime as a composition unfolds.

…for telling fleeting stories.

The moment you see captured in a street photograph might have only persisted for a fraction of a second before it was gone forever. That exact arrangement of those specific people, the quality of light and shadow, the precise position of the photographer and how the scene was framed–these never existed before and will never again. Street photography is literally the art of, “here one second, gone the next.”

Black and white street photography centered on a car. Inside the car are five passengers, each looking out of the car in directions. Centered in the frame is a young woman, looking directly into the camera. Behind her, two small boys look out of frame behind the car. A woman, driving, looks ahead.
Incidents 005, by Henry Wessel. ©2012 Henry Wessel, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Wessel’s Street Photography class

My experience with street photography is mostly limited to a class I took of the same name in art school. This was one of those “50% lecture / 50% critique” classes, where time was split between learning the history of a domain (which was primarily slide lectures covering the successful artists of a genre) and looking at / critiquing student work.

The class was taught by Henry ‘Hank’ Wessel. Though the details are hazy now, I recall that Hank studied with Larry Fink, and it’s true that much lecture time was dedicated to Fink, and to Garry Winogrand, a personal friend of Hank’s. Hank was photographing prolifically at the time, though I don’t know how he managed it with his teaching schedule. If Fink and Winogrand are ‘big’ names in street photography, Wessel is a ‘small’ one, but one that should be remembered.

Street photography requires optimism, discipline, and tenacity

Given its dynamic nature, getting a really great street photograph has a low success rate. What might have been a terrific picture can be missed by feet or tenths of a second. As students, we were encouraged to make dozens or even hundreds of exposures each week. We processed handfuls of rolls of 35mm film at a time, hoping to find maybe one or two good images among the misses. (And oh boy, there were a lot of misses.)

Hank taught us that even the best street photographers find success only through volume. You have to make a lot of pictures, it’s very much a numbers game. Even more so, street photographers need to develop a regular process for getting work done: reserve days and times when they can work, find locations where subjects (people) readily congregate, and by always being on the lookout for interesting environments. These practices improve the odds.

I like to think that optimism is the defining characteristic of street photographers. Or maybe it’s that optimistic photographers are drawn to street photography. Or maybe this was just Hank.

Wessel’s legacy

The moments he captured may have been fleeting, but Hank’s images themselves live on. As recently as September, a beautiful exhibition of his work was hung in the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco.

Things I remember about Hank:

  • Hank was eternally enthusiastic about photography; sharing it, making it, talking about it, encouraging and pushing us to keep going despite the fact that 99% of our work was pure garbage.
  • Even as he shared Fink and Winogrand as inspirations and role models, he was this even more so. Hank showed that he was also putting in the work; the rolls of exposed film he lined up on the front of the lectern gave us little room for excuses for why we weren’t producing. He modeled what a practicing professional artist could look like (including the necessity of a teaching gig ;).
  • You knew he was about to arrive in the classroom because you could hear him whistling and singing, echoing through the halls. He made his own intro music.

As much as an artist, he is remembered as a teacher and an inspiration.

Thanks, Hank.

You can check out some of Hank’s work here:

Tate Museum:

Henry Wessel | TateShots (video, YouTube):

Rena Bransten Gallery:

New York Times: Henry Wessel: Capturing the Image, Transcending the Subject:
(paywalled article)

Fraenkel Gallery: Henry Wessel Jr. House Pictures:

Cover image: Self portrait made in the MOMA, using Garry Winogrand’s photo ‘El Morocco, New York, 1955’ as a mirror. ©2009 Ron Johnson.