Pictures of things as they used to be.
People take pictures of each other
Just to prove that they really existed
Just to prove that they really existed" - People Take Pictures Of Each Other - The Kinks
Wim Wenders is, of course, far more well known as a film director (Wings of Desire, Paris, Texas, and The Million Dollar Hotel to name just three) than a photographer but both clearly involve having an 'eye' and travelling a lot. So it's no surprise that the ease of use and the instant results available with a Polaroid appealed to him.
The Photographers' Gallery was hosting Instant Stories:Wim Wenders' Polaroids, a collection of his personal and previously unseen photographic work taken over the best part of twenty years beginning in the late 1960s. There are over 200 images grouped, vaguely, thematically, and due, perhaps, to the fact that they'd not been taken with a view to being exhibited none of them are dated.
New York, First Impressions
Some, like the Campbell's soup tins above and the protruding bridge of On A Wing And A Prayer nod to clear influences. Andy Warhol, obvs, in the former - and Whistler (by way of Hokusai and Hiroshige) in the latter. Others appear to have been taken more on the spur of the moment, yet are no less impressive. American Friends, Mean Streets, and Right Or Wrong Moves speak of desolation, loneliness, and the hinterlands of the human condition. They look as if they were taken, respectively, in the US Mid-West, Northern England, and Mitteleuropa (somewhere like Prague or Budapest). Of course there are no labels so I could be completely wrong about that. A lot of this exhibition is about looking rather than reading, interpreting as opposed to being informed.
A Man Named Dashiell
On A Wing And A Prayer
No Man's Land Nor Movies
Right Or Wrong Moves
Wenders claims to have used his Polaroids like a visual notebook during his early days as a film maker and it's possible to see how some of the images he captured could later go on to be adapted for cinema. There's a very filmic quality to snaps like Overexposed and Cookie Monster (and A John Ford Dream speaks for itself). You create your own narrative when you spend enough time with the image.
The Polaroids on show feature friends, family members, and cast and crew from Wenders' movies. There are behind the scenes shots, still lives, street photography, landscapes, portraiture. New York and San Francisco feature prominently. As a German in America he views things through the eye of an outsider as so many in that country do. Sometimes it helps us to see things that otherwise we'd take for granted.
New York, First Impressions
A John Ford Dream
A John Ford Dream
Typeset directly on the wall is a quote from Wenders in which he talks about his process. How, in the beginning, one could only photograph in black and white, how he would stick the pictures under his armpit to keep them warm while they were developing so they could be either overexposed or underexposed, and how he'd wait with "a heartbeat of suspense" for the pictures to come into focus.
There's a small film in a curtained off room in the corner of the gallery where you can see a small child's face light up with glee when first faced with the magic of photography and Polaroids in particular. There's another couple of things in the show that somewhat labour the same point and, and maybe this is an age thing, there's also an awful lot of squinting involved.
Alice In Instant Wonderland
One interesting point made is how Polaroids once seemed so futuristic they almost seemed like something from science fiction but the passing of time has turned them into slightly kitsch items revered by hipsters and throwbacks everywhere. With the (almost) instant gratification they provided they were, in many ways, precursors to our camera phones. A friend once told me that more photographs are taken every second now than were taken during the entire nineteenth century. If that's true that's not necessarily a bad thing, no need to moan about the modern world, but great as it is to see life refracted through a camera lens sometimes we need to remember to use our eyes as well. A quick glance at Wim Wenders' Polaroids suggests he was more than capable of doing both.
Thanks to my friend Vicki for bringing this exhibition to my attention, joining me on a visit, and debriefing over a few glasses in a couple of Fitzrovia's finest old man pubs afterwards.