Opening today at the Photographers’ Gallery in London is an exhibition of Polaroid images taken by the film director Wim Wenders over almost two decades, from the late 60s to the early 80s.
There are over 200 images included in the show, and they offer insights into Wenders’ daily life and work at the time, as well as into the nature of Polaroid photography itself, and how it has influenced imagemaking in our modern, digital age.
The photos are displayed in loose groupings, occasionally around Wenders’ films. Two of his movies have featured Polaroids as a dominant prop: in The American Friend, Dennis Hopper snaps himself repeatedly using a Polaroid camera in one scene, while in the road movie Alice in the City, the central character is shown taking numerous Polaroid photographs. Both films make appearances here, the making of them documented by Wenders himself in Polaroid, with a young Dennis Hopper shown looking enigmatic and glorious, the perfect movie star.
But knowledge of Wenders’ films isn’t really required to enjoy this exhibition, for the photos themselves provide the interest and the joy. “I was learning the craft of filmmaking in those years, and Polaroids were the perfect complimentary tool: as a visual notebook, a quick way of ‘framing’ the world, a verification of my interest in people, places, objects, or simply as a way to remember things,” Wenders explains in a text accompanying the show.
His eye for capturing the perfect shot is very much in evidence in the photos, which despite the throwaway nature of Polaroids, often appear to contain far-reaching tales within a single frame. A VW Beetle parked enigmatically at the side of a lake, a car door left open on a dusty road: we are left to fill in the pieces of these potential stories ourselves, drawn close by the size of the images to examine every tiny aspect in detail.
Other of Wenders’ images seem to foretell the preoccupations of the Instagram generation. There are repetitive images of the everyday: of food, of waterfalls and of the wings of planes. Television sets, with images juddering, are a recurring attraction, and Wenders does a great line in capturing city skylines and the now-retro lettering of the time, all made more romantic by the distinctive tones and atmosphere evoked by Polaroid film.
“It’s a very different sensation in the digital age,” says Wenders of using a Polaroid camera. “Holding a small screen in your hand or looking at an instant image on a screen is not the same. Nothing compared to the Polaroid experience. It was a little magic act each time – nothing more, nothing less.”
Of course, the process of exposing a Polaroid image is part of that experience, and Wenders makes this sound almost as magical as the photos themselves. “After I took them, I would stick the pictures under my armpit to keep them warm while they were developing and keep an eye on my watch. Holding them there for too long would produce dark pictures; too short a time would make them look pale, lacking contrast. I remember doing lots of things, like smoking, writing and driving or talking on the phone with both arms closely held to my body. Then, depending on the type of film, you’d peel off the cover. There was always a certain surprise involved and a heartbeat of suspense.”
As with many things analogue, Polaroid continues to be a draw to many, despite the technology now being long outmoded (Polaroid Originals has even recently relaunched a version of the original cameras, such is their appeal).
Wenders himself stopped using the cameras long ago, stating that it is over 30 years since he has taken an image with one. In the exhibition text he questions why he has returned to these images now, and why an exhibition might be of interest. In the end, it’s the lived experience offered within the shots that makes them intriguing, plus the unique quality that Polaroid offers, bathing the scenes in the misty tones of nostalgia that now form our default way of imagining the past.
“It is obvious to me now, as a filmmaker and storyteller that the only things worth talking about are those in experience and based on one’s very own knowledge of the world,” Wenders writes. “And if by exploring what these small objects represent, and if they can shed light on what we do today, well then it’s a good thing to share them.”
‘Instant Stories. Wim Wenders’ Polaroids’ is on show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until February 11, 2018. The show is created in collaboration with the Wim Wenders Foundation and C|O Berlin; tpg.org.uk