Borderlands: Photographs by Mary Wessel

“Firemouth” (1992), from the series “Domestic Terror”

“I work on the borderlands where photography edges into things you don’t expect.”

Mary Wessel

With degrees in philosophy, sociology and fine art, Mary Wessel approaches the medium of photography armed to the teeth. It should come as no surprise that, for most of her career, she has been less interested in what lies before the camera and more interested in the mysteries begging to be revealed in the darkroom. Bypassing more traditional photographic processes, Wessel stays rooted in the essence of the medium. Her images are neither happening in response to a momentarily pleasing arrangement of light and shadow nor are they carefully staged in the controlled space of a studio.

Known as “cameraless” photography, this technique references the earliest days of the medium, when light-sensitive paper first captured and retained an image. When objects or substances are placed on or near light-sensitive paper, compelling shadow figures appear. Working in the darkroom in almost total darkness, Wessel quietly experiments with a variety of different objects, chemicals and tools in a quest for reaction. Reflecting her patience and openness to possibility, much of her work is solitary, and outcomes are uncertain.

In early series like “Seismic Reflections” (1992), Wessel’s work is quite personal, recording the imprint of her own body. In the series “Blindnesses” (2001), she uses objects — blue, red, clear and white vinyl LPs, a color enlarger and a flashlight — to create colorful otherworldly images that seem to reference the cosmos and the great beyond. For “Worldscapes” (2008-2010), Wessel interacts closely with the surface of the photographic paper, wiping, blotting, eye-dropping or sponging various substances like water or acid across the surface. Chemical reactions seem to burst and roll across the page. As when seeking shapes in clouds, the mind immediately tries to make sense through connections — a deep underwater organism emerging from the depths or bright light from the aurora borealis.

Wessel does not completely ignore traditional camera-based photography, however. As a longtime professor, she is well versed in the nuances and idiosyncratic tendencies of the film-based (or digital) process. When approached with an eye toward abstraction, most of her series of straight images speak the same language as her cameraless ones. In the series “Water” (2019), a close focus on the surface of the water and elimination of any anchor-point leaves a swirling, twirling mass of amorphic shapes, at once connecting and breaking apart. In “Transfigurations: The Wall” (2019), Wessel steadies the camera on the outside of a trench box, used to protect workers during underground digging. The close-up on the exterior reveals scratches and gouges caused by rocks and tree roots far below the surface — as if the earth has left a written message.

Her recent series “May Light Perpetual Shine Upon Us” (ongoing) is a departure from earlier work. Here, Wessel photographs the after-effects of a storm — uprooted trees and downed branches. She manipulates the images in Photoshop, adding unexpected and arresting color. The viewer is at once drawn in by the beauty of nature and repelled by the unnatural palette.

Throughout her career, Wessel has challenged the preconceptions of photography as a representational and reproducible medium. Enigmatic and resistant to classification, her work offers a welcome space for imagination. Deeply thoughtful and tethered to experimentation, Wessel fully embraces possibilities and chance. In many ways, her work reflects her motto — “I’d rather wear a path by walking it than walk a well-worn path.” Spoken like a true philosopher. And photographer.

All photos courtesy of the artist

“Untitled” (2001), from the series “Blindnesses”
“Blue Arm” (2007), from the series “Pandemonium”
“Electric” (2019), from the series “Water”
“Untitled” (2008-2010), from the series “Worldscapes”
“Bone/Deep” (2018), from the series “Adaptation”
“A Picture Held Us Captive” (2014), from the series “Window (Plato’s Cave)”
Detail of “A Time Older than Time” (2019), from the series “For a Passing”
“Nerveless Fury Swells” (2018-2019), from the series “Transfigurations: The Wall”
“The Last Measure” (2021), from the series “May Light Perpetual Shine Upon Us”
Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall is the former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Holding a PhD in art history and an MBA, she has authored and curated numerous publications and exhibitions on photography. Aspinwall is currently working on a project about the early work of Alfred Eisenstaedt.

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