Art and design






Life and style








US news

World news

Wim Wenders on his Polaroids – and why photography is now over

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

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.

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. Shots he took of her 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.”

Several years ago, 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 is at the Photographers’ Gallery, London, 20 October to 11 February, in collaboration with Wim Wenders Foundation and C|O Berlin Foundation.
This article titled "Wim Wenders on his Polaroids – and why photography is now over" was written by Sean O'Hagan, for The Guardian on Thursday 12 October 2017 05.00am

Art and design

Susan Philipsz: A Single Voice – sci-fi sound and emotional mystery

What a miraculous thing art is. Just when you thought you knew what it was, it becomes something… Read more

Looted antiquities allegedly on sale at London Frieze Masters art fair

In January 2015, the art squad of the Italian carabinieri hosted a press conference in Rome at… Read more

Ken Loach says his beloved Bath is being ruined by tourism

The film director and activist Ken Loach has claimed that his beloved home city of Bath is being… Read more

Disquieting, disturbing and fantastical Hyper Real takes over the NGA

To be “hyper real” - the National Gallery of Australia’s latest exhibition is somewhat at pains to… Read more

Head ashtrays and pin-up body parts – Alina Szapocznikow: Human Landscapes review

Julie Christie’s pink mouth blooms in a glowing orb atop an elegant curving stem. These Illuminated… Read more

Farshid Moussavi: La Folie Divine, Montpellier; Îlot 19 La Défense – review

On the outskirts of Montpellier in southern France, in response to a former mayor’s request for a… Read more

Meet Liz Diller, the rebel architect behind MoMA, the High Line and now a home for Simon Rattle

‘We’ve never stopped being rebellious,” says Liz Diller, founding partner of Diller Scofidio +… Read more

The Chapmans go to war, photographers turn feral and Cézanne blows us away

Exhibition of the week Cézanne Portraits The searching and profound portraits of Paul Cézanne are… Read more

Pissarro in Norwood, Monet at the Savoy: what the exiled impressionists saw in London

Commemorative plaques on buildings frequently take us by surprise, providing an immediate bridge to… Read more

Judy Chicago: 'In the 1960s, I was the only visible woman artist'

When artist Judy Chicago was a student at the University of California in 1960, she had one… Read more