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Wim WendersValley of the Gods, Utah, 1977(c) Wim WendersCourtesy Deutsches Filminstitut Frankfurt a.M.

Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’ Polaroids

24 October 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

In this new exhibition, The Photographer’s Gallery hosts hundreds of Polaroids taken by esteemed director Wim Wenders. Taken between the late 1960s and mid 80s, these images ask questions about memory and identity.

German filmmaker Wim Wenders - famed for Paris, Texas (1984), and Wings of Desire (1987) - has always taken photographs. In many of Wenders’ films, like Alice in the Cities (1974), or The American Friend (1987), photography is of central importance not only to his main characters, but also as a way of underlining how meaning is made. By including photography and the camera as both a motif and theme in his films he hints towards an underlying narrative, a way of understanding his films through still images. In Alice in the Cities, the protagonist, a young German journalist called Philip Winter, constantly takes photographs using a Polaroid camera, musing at one point ‘The picture never looks like what you see’.  For Philip, though the Polaroid allows the photographer to take an instant photograph, the moment it captures is, even in an infinitesimal way, different to the moment before. As Wenders himself comments, Polaroids are ‘Not a copy, not a print, not multipliable, not repeatable’, they offer a unique way of capturing a moment, in which the photographer can produce something completely unique.

In this new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery, over 200 of Wenders’ Polaroids are displayed for the first time.  The subjects are various, the locations unclear, and the time periods multiple. What unites them, however, can be found in the title of the exhibition, ‘Instant Stories’: the idea that in every image, there is always a narrative waiting to be revealed. And indeed, his use of the Polaroid camera is tied to his interest in the craft of narrative, as Wenders used it right at the beginning of his career in order to finesse his storytelling and develop his particular aesthetic.  However, these images also problematize the idea of creative identity, through his use of ambiguous self-portraits which pepper the exhibit. His circular glasses re-emerge throughout, in one image, held aloft, as if allowing the camera to literally see through his eyes. But there are also strange, half portraits, where his nose pokes over a scarf, or his face is slightly out of frame.  If these images promise a story, it is left to us to work out what it might be.  


Wim Wenders Sydney © Wim Wenders Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

The exhibition’s curation feeds into the interplay between anonymity, meaning and narrative, by showing the Polaroids in groups under enigmatic or obscure titles such as ‘Mean Streets’ or ‘No Man’s Land Nor Movies’. Each individual photo, though titled and archived by Wenders himself, is also left without a title in the gallery. Often, in a gallery space, one notices how much people prioritise the descriptions and titles of works over the works themselves; by not including any titles with these tiny images, the viewer is left to make connections themselves, focussing on really looking and getting close to what is on display, rather than reading any provided explanation.  This is reflected in the impressionistic content of the images themselves.

Wenders is famous for documenting roads, particularly the clear open road or in-between spaces, like motels and gas stations, in both his film work and his photography.  There are several stretches of open road in this exhibition, but this time through the intimate view of the Polaroid. In this smaller form, rather than suggesting a vast expanse or the overwhelming enormity of the American desert, the image of the road becomes a miniaturised landscape, no longer threatening or intimidating, but contained momentarily in the frame of the photograph.  The same can also be said of the skylines of the various places he travels: at points the viewer can say with certainty, this is New York, or this is Paris, but his love of small everyday details means that the images often feel placeless. Though the viewer can attempt to name these places, one can never be sure; these images do not allow for certainties but instead, show something else, something partial.


Wim Wenders New York Parade, 1972 © Wim Wenders Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

These images also contain historical moments and famous faces; Wenders happened to be in New York on the 8th December 1980, the day that John Lennon was shot and there are several images of the vigil that followed.  He also has images of actor and director Dennis Hopper, star of The American Friend.  On the wall of the second gallery is a looped excerpt of that film, one in which Hopper, as cowboy wannabe Tom, takes several disturbing Polaroids of himself from different angles; one of these Polaroids hangs on the wall in a blurring of fact and fiction.  Though they may be small, these photos can also gesture to the history of other artworks: one image looks exactly like a miniature Escher painting, through its depiction of a series of staircases that lead in and out of frame, and another seems to be a playful riff on Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, returned to the mundane setting of the supermarket.

There is something so charming about these Polaroids in their bends, folds and smudges. In their instantaneousness, they become part of the photographer’s everyday life.  There are several images that seem to have lived with Wenders, perhaps in a pocket, under pages of a notebook or used as a makeshift coaster.  The little smudges or marks suggest how much more intimate Polaroids are, much closer to the body than normal photography.   This also happens in the experience of going around the gallery; these small images ask you to move in closer, peering into the frame with your whole body.  Looking at Wenders’ Polaroids is almost like looking into the viewfinder of a microscope, to see little details from new, startling angles. 

Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’ Polaroids runs until 11 Feb 2018 at The Photographers’ Gallery in collaboration with Wim Wenders Foundation and C|O Berlin Foundation.
 
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