With Soft Eyes: Photographs by Austin Leong, Adrian Martinez, and Henry Wessel
With Soft Eyes at the Center for Photographic Art features photographs taken in California over the last six years by contemporary Bay Area–based photographers Austin Leong and Adrian Martinez and selected works also shot in California by the late Henry Wessel. Working largely with 35mm black-and-white film, Leong, Martinez, and Wessel demonstrate how photography is uniquely positioned to describe with lyricism, poignancy, and humor what is often overlooked in day-to-day life.
The exhibition’s title alludes to the way Wessel once described how he photographs in the world, with an active awareness he termed “soft eyes”: “It is a physical sensation. You are not looking for something. You are open, receptive. At some point you are in front of something that you cannot ignore.” Wessel’s understanding of and approach to the medium continues to resonate with contemporary photographers like Leong and Martinez, whose cameras are always at the ready as they mindfully observe their surroundings.
Just as Wessel documented cultural signifiers distinct to his time—lone phone booths, roadside advertising signs, and era-specific design—Leong and Martinez capture ubiquitous cellphones, mask-clad faces, and graffiti punctuating the urban landscape. Even so, a timelessness pervades many of the pictures—a sense that the people, places, or scenes depicted transcend the singularity of their moment. They exemplify how paying close attention and being responsive to the world as it is unfolding can reveal the unexpected in the seemingly mundane.
A grouping of photographs from Wessel’s iconic body of work California and the West anchors the exhibition. These photographs provide a formal, aesthetic, and conceptual framework against which to consider how Leong and Martinez operate within this lineage while extending its visual vocabulary into the present. The shared sensibilities among the three reverberate throughout the show, perhaps most clearly when their photographs are side by side, as in the center of the gallery space. But even when viewed separately, the connective threads are unmistakable.
The exhibition is curated by Allie Haeusslein.