Research notes – Michael Wesely

Michael Wesely (b 1963) is a German photographer

The following comments are made on his book “Open Shutter” (1), which accompanied an exhibition with the same name at MoMA in NY in 2004-2005 (link to show notes)

First I would like to record some observations on the book’s general layout and format:

  • The book opens in landscape format
  • Long text introduction precedes the pictures
  • Pictures are presented in black and white and colour.
  • Nearly all pictures are presented in landscape format, and there are shown one for every two pages (but there are two page spreads to provide details).
  • The location and time the picture was taken is shown on the left hand side page.

Wesely’s work is highly technical in his execution. One could perhaps draw parallels with Thomas Ruff’s JPEG in terms of the technique being central to the premise of the collection of images, but in this case there is something magical about the results. Every picture shows elements which are very clearly defined (and I believe Wesely’s choice of large format camera with quality lens for this work does indeed accentuate that), there are then elements that are slightly in motion, or which motion has been clearly captured by the film and there are others that are just barely recorded, perhaps just a glimmer of light or a slight shadow: buildings that started being part of the image but that were slowly dismantled, or those structures that were not there in the first place but were built step by step during the exposure time. In the very long exposures, humans passing by are not even recorded, their transit through the frame being too short for them to leave any trace, and all of that is what creates a metaphor for humanity’s ephemeral transition through time.

The longer exposures are quite enjoyable, but we must recognise that for all its technical preparation, and indeed Wesely shows a great degree of meticulousness in setting up his shots, in the end the results are essentially out of the photographer’s control, and in some cases work well but in others the effect is perhaps too subtle (eg Abbau Infobox, Berlin (link) and 15.06.2001 – 18.02.2003 MoMA NY (link)). While one would be tempted to believe this is the antithesis of the “decisive moment”, as conceived by Cartier-Bresson, the philosophy of both approaches is not that much apart. For Cartier-Bresson, it was very important to be able to observe and to be receptive to events as a precondition to being able to capture them. In many cases, as he himself said, our ability to capture such moments is primarily down to chance, to luck. I feel that Wesely’s work also shares that element of luck, while also being receptive to what was going in the locations where he set his equipment, and on and anticipating what may be captured by the camera.

____________

(1) Meister, S.H. and Michael (2005) Michael Wesely: Open shutter. New York: Distributed in the United States and Canada by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers.

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