donderdag 12 oktober 2017

Views & Reviews Polaroids – and why Photography is now over Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders on his Polaroids – and why photography is now over
Vigils for John Lennon, road trips with Annie Liebovitz, portraits of Dennis Hopper … Wim Wenders took thousands of Polaroids while making his classic films. He shares the stories behind them

Valley of the Gods, Utah, 1977, by Wim Wenders.
'They were made from the gut’ … Valley of the Gods, Utah, 1977, by Wim Wenders. Photograph: © Wim Wenders/Courtesy Deutsches Filminstitut Frankfurt

Sean O'Hagan
Thursday 12 October 2017 06.00 BST
Wim Wenders reckons he took more than 12,000 Polaroids between 1973 and 1983, when his career as a film-maker really took off, but only 3,500 remain. “The thing is,” he says, “you gave them away. You had the person in front of you, whose picture you had just taken, and it was like they had more right to it. The Polaroids helped with making the movies, but they were not an aim in themselves. They were disposable.”

Four decades on, the Photographers’ Gallery in London is about to host an extensive exhibition of Wenders’s early Polaroids called Instant Stories. They date from that prolific period in the 1970s that produced now classic films such as The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, Alice in the Cities and The American Friend. Many capture moments in the making of these movies, but others are records of the places he travelled through: cities, small towns, deserts, highways and hotels. Like his films, they all possess a melancholic romanticism. “My first reaction was, ‘Wow! Where did this all come from?’ I had forgotten about so much of it. I realised I had been taking pictures like a maniac.”

Self-portrait, 1975, by Wim Wenders.
Melancholy romanticism … Self-portrait, 1975. Photograph: © Wim Wenders/Courtesy the Wim Wenders Foundation

The Polaroids have been grouped under characteristically evocative titles: Photo Booths, Jukeboxes and Typewriters; Looking for America; California Dreaming; Mean Streets. Together, they add up to an impressionistic diary of a time when “there was no sadness, no anger, there was nothing but sheer innocence, not only my own, but everyone around me. The films were made from one day to another without any great thinking process. They were made from the gut – and the Polaroids also are made from the gut.”

We are sitting in a spacious, well-ordered office in Wenders Images, a studio complex near the centre of Berlin that houses his vast, meticulously organised archive. He had turned up earlier wearing a helmet and cagoule, having travelled from his nearby home on an electric bike. With his shock of grey hair, thick round glasses and high-waisted trousers with braces, he looks like an eccentric professor.

New York Parade, 1972, by Wim Wenders.
 ‘They are a healthy memory of how things were – and what we have lost’ … New York Parade, 1972. Photograph: © Wim Wenders/Courtesy the Wim Wenders Foundation

Wenders, now 72, was given his first camera as a child in Düsseldorf by his father, a doctor. “He took pictures all his life, but never thought of himself as a photographer. He passed on his appreciation to me. I had to learn about exposure, focus, all the technical stuff. But much as I loved doing it, I also never thought of myself as a photographer. Even later with the Polaroids, that was still the case.”

Does he think that defined the images he made? “Yes. For sure. If ever I had wanted to really take a picture of something, I would not have done it with a Polaroid. I never thought of it as giving the real picture.”

When approached by the Photographers’ Gallery, he thought long and hard about exhibiting them. “I really hesitated. The only justification for putting them in a gallery is that they show what happened. They are a healthy memory of how things were and what we have lost. The realisation that we have lost something is not necessarily nostalgic. It can be tragic.”

Heinz, 1973, by Wim Wenders
Heinz, 1973, by Wim Wenders Photograph: © Wim Wenders

In the context of a gallery, the Polaroids have a complex presence. Often creased or marked, with their colours slightly faded, they evoke another time, one that already seems impossibly distant. What’s more, they lend that era an aura of mystery and romance – even when they are blurred or badly composed. That was part of the charm of the unwieldy, hard-to-focus camera. But, in an exhibition space, they are elevated from ephemera to art.

It is an uncomfortable transition, which has not gone unnoticed by Wenders. “The meaning of these Polaroids is not in the photos themselves – it is in the stories that lead to them. That’s why the exhibition is called Instant Stories – the catalogue is a storybook more than a photo book.”

The accompanying stories are certainly fascinating. In one, he recalls a chance encounter in 1973 with “a tall young woman” who takes the seat beside him at the bar in CBGB, the legendary New York nightclub. Sensing his loneliness, she gives him her name and number as she is leaving, telling him to call should he find himself alone in San Francisco.

When I got to New York, I joined the thousands of people gathering in silence for John Lennon

A week later, he does just that – and so begins a friendship with a young music photographer called Annie Leibovitz, who takes him on a road trip to Los Angeles. “I took some pictures on the road and so did Annie,” he says. The seven shots she took of him driving are in the exhibition.

In another story, he recounts hearing about John Lennon’s death while driving along a freeway in Los Angeles. “That was a very decisive moment in my life,” he says. “I pulled over and let the traffic go by and it slowly sank in and I started to cry. I sat there and wept until there were no more tears left.” On impulse, he drove to the airport and caught the red-eye to New York. “When I got there, I was part of a silent gathering of thousands of people. It was an act of common trauma. We had all lost something essential that we thought was not going to end so soon. For me, it was my childhood, my youth.”

Unlike his later photography, which is mainly landscapes and buildings, Instant Stories includes several portraits, including the great Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, the German actor Senta Berger, and the late Dennis Hopper, who starred in The American Friend. Hopper was also an accomplished photographer. Did they compare notes? “Not really. Dennis was” – long pause – “a carefree person. By the time our paths crossed, he had left photography behind and was painting. We spoke about photography and I saw and loved his work. We even made a film in which his character talks about photography a lot. But for Dennis, photography was a thing of the past. I knew him from 1976 and I never saw him taking a picture.”

Campbell Soups, New York 1972.
Ephemera … Campbell Soups, New York, 1972. Photograph: © Wim Wenders

Wenders, too, now regards photography as a thing of the past. “It’s not just the meaning of the image that has changed – the act of looking does not have the same meaning. Now, it’s about showing, sending and maybe remembering. It is no longer essentially about the image. The image for me was always linked to the idea of uniqueness, to a frame and to composition. You produced something that was, in itself, a singular moment. As such, it had a certain sacredness. That whole notion is gone.”

Last year, as if in acknowledgment of this, he gave his Polaroid camera to his friend Patti Smith. “Hers was old and damaged and letting the light in,” he says. “I had the same camera. I was never going to use it any more.”

So Instant Stories is also an elegy for the Polaroid itself, and all it stood for. “At the time, it was part of everyday life, another thing you used for living – like food and air and the stinky cars we were driving and the cigarettes everyone was smoking. Today, making a Polaroid is just a process.”

He sighs and rubs his eyes. “The culture has changed. It has all gone. I really don’t know why we stick to the word photography any more. There should be a different term, but nobody cared about finding it.”

Instant Stories. Wim Wenders’ Polaroids is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, 20 October to 11 February.

Beeldspraak: Was es alles gibt

zl-0607-junijuli-2015Duncan Liefferink
De werkelijkheid. Sommige kunstenaars hebben het er behoorlijk moeilijk mee. Claude Monet had meer dan twintig schilderijen nodig om het licht op de kathedraal van Rouen te vangen en was toen nog niet tevreden. David Hockney, vorig jaar in Keulen, installeerde tientallen videoschermen om de ervaring van een plek vast te leggen – of hij tevreden was weet ik niet, maar ik vraag het me af.

Wim Wenders (1945, Düsseldorf) kijkt er zorgelozer tegenaan. Met zijn foto’s wil hij gewoon, zonder omhaal, rechttoe rechtaan de werkelijkheid laten zien. “Was es alles gibt” – niet meer en niet minder. Dat is verrassend, want we hebben het over de maker van films als Paris, Texas en Der Himmel über Berlin. Ik heb ze nog eens bekeken en die films zijn allesbehalve rechttoe rechtaan. Voorafgaand aan de tentoonstelling van zijn foto’s in Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf zei Wenders het zo: “In mijn films vertel ik mijn eigen verhaal, in mijn foto’s laat ik plekken zien die zelf iets te vertellen hebben”. In de catalogus koppelt hij zijn voorliefde voor de werkelijkheid aan een tirade tegen de digitale fotografie, tegen gemanipuleerde beelden en tegen de “second hand reality” van de “zogenaamde” sociale media.

Hoe doet Wenders dat, de werkelijkheid laten zien? In ieder geval ging hij er ver voor van huis. Hij reisde naar Armenië, naar Japan en naar het Wilde Westen. Hij fotografeerde prachtig  vervallen gevels in Havana, het meer van Galilea in de oranje gloed van de zonsopgang en een woestijnlandschap in Australië dat uit niets dan zand en horizon bestaat. De eerlijkheid gebiedt te zeggen dat er ook foto’s van de Potsdamer Platz in Berlijn en uit Brandenburg zijn. Die laatste lijken nogal op negentiende-eeuwse schilderijen, maar dan dik vier meter breed. En daar hebben we precies het probleem van op zijn minst een deel van deze foto’s. Ze zijn zorgzaam opgebouwd en schitterend van licht en kleur. Echt heel mooi zijn ze, maar misschien zijn ze wel een beetje al te mooi. In zijn verwondering over “wat er allemaal is” scheert Wenders rakelings langs cliché en megalomanie. Waarschijnlijk waren de twijfels van Monet en Hockney toch niet helemaal uit de lucht gegrepen.

De spannendste foto’s in Düsseldorf zijn, grappig genoeg, nu net de foto’s waarin Wenders wél een verhaal vertelt. Of preciezer: waarin hij door nadruk te leggen op een contrast of een bizar detail – een knalrood bankje, een eenzame figuur, een éénrichtingsbord – het begin van een verhaal suggereert. Je kunt dat het verhaal van de plek noemen, maar mij lijkt dat een mystificatie. Het is immers niemand anders dan de maker van de foto die ons met zachte dwang op het spoor zet.

Na afloop at ik een appeltje in het plantsoen tussen het museum en de Rijn. De bloemen bloeiden, een boot voer voorbij, de zon scheen op mijn voorhoofd, traag bewoog over de brug een tram, het geluid van het verkeer vermengde zich met het getsjilp van de mussen. Een intense vrede daalde op mij neer. “Was es alles gibt”, dacht ik.

4 Real & True 2. Wim Wenders – Landschaften, Photographien. Van 18 april t/m 16 augustus 2015 in Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf.

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