“[Polaroids] are all about present tense…powerfully present, unrepeatable, one of a kind.” – Wim Wenders
The current exhibition of Polaroids taken by Wim Wenders between the 1960s and 1980s at the Photographer’s Gallery in London is a gentle love letter to the mode of instant photography first produced in 1948. Across two floors of the gallery, the show presents clusters of images taken at various points in the director’s life that illustrate a deep appreciation for the medium. Not only is the exhibition a display of how the instant photographs have acted as an aide to the director’s filmmaking process, but also an admiration for the unique one-of-a-kind nature of the Polaroid.
Wim Wenders was born in Germany in 1945, though as it is made clear in the Photographer’s Gallery exhibition, he was fascinated with the United States. Across over 200 photographs the audience is shown waterfalls, empty beaches, ice cream sundaes and rainy New York streets. Each image has an air of quiet to them. Where instant photography is often associated with energy and motion, Wenders’s prints – even when populated with dozens, even hundreds of people – are reserved, understated and subdued. They look as though they were taken with deep care: slowly and with a great deal of thought.
An Academy Award nominated director, taking Polaroid photographs provided Wenders with the ability to create a visual notebook out of instant photography, which allowed him to test out frames and ideas. Not only was the Polaroid camera used as a tool to try out what would later be recorded as a moving image, but in 1974 he was the first director to include a Polaroid camera in a film in Alice in the Cities. Amongst portraits of Wenders’s contemporaries from the film world are Dennis Hopper, Robbie Muller and Senta Berger. Hopper’s images are displayed in two ways: in a clip from Wenders’s 1977 film American Friend, where Hopper’s character takes ‘selfies’ of himself, and in two prints framed next to the projection, in which the material images from the movie are displayed.
Often the images on display are blurred, imperfect and faded. The washed-out effect given to the majority of the photographs is what makes them so enchanting. Wenders’s land and cityscape shots taken while touring the US say everything and nothing at the same time. New York Parade, 1972 reveals a busy New York street, it is blurred and the majority of the image comes in the form of many shades of grey. In the centre of the frame amongst the ashen tones is the American flag, its flecks of red and blue popping out like lights amongst the overcast image. Facing towards the flag we can see the back of a man’s head. Is this supposed to be a political statement? The title of the image suggests that it is a festive occasion, though the low-flying flag and dark colours convey a different mood. Regardless of whether the photograph was intended to communicate any kind of message or not, it is the imperfect finish to these images – the misty facades on buildings, or blurred figures captured whilst moving – that adds to the intrigue of the image.
Each section of the exhibition has been given a poetic title like Photo Booths, Jukeboxes and Typewriters, Looking for America and California Dreaming. And, while Wenders does not only present American imagery in the London exhibition, it is the photographs of the United States that dominate. Everything from Andy Warhol style tins of soup and bowls of desserts overflowing with cream appear amongst aerial views of New York and billboard signs advertising Marlboro cigarettes. Of the most memorable pieces of Americana on display are a series of images taken in Utah. Valley of the Gods, Utah, 1977 shows the side of a blue-green car with its door open on an empty desert road. The pastel tones of the cloudy sky and the turquoise car next to the orange-brown road create a dream-like image, of a mystery location that is unattainable for just anyone to visit.
Accompanying the Polaroids are a series of quotes that are scattered across the gallery walls, which are almost as lovely as the photographs. Anecdotes like ‘they were made from the gut – and the Polaroids also are made from the gut’ and ‘shooting pictures is a way of defending yourself’ is a testament to just how high Wenders’s respect for the format is. Printed high on the walls above his compact photographs, these grand statements make the relatively small images seem like monumental works of art in their own right.
“You produced and owned ‘an original!’ Not a copy, not a print, not multipliable, not repeatable.” – Wim Wenders
The exhibition, and the photographs that comprise it, are a soft and gentle tribute to the Polaroid. The stories produced by these photographs may have been captured in seconds, but their impact on the world of art, photography and film will no doubt be long and enduring.
Instant Stories runs until 11 Feb 2018 at The Photographers’ Gallery in collaboration with Wim Wenders Foundation and C|O Berlin Foundation. http://www.tpg.org.uk