The prolific filmmaker Wim Wenders — whose roving, poetic eye has brought us the likes of “Wings of Desire” (1987); “Alice in the Cities” (1973); “Paris, Texas” (1984); and “Buena Vista Social Club” (1999), to name only a few — is just as productive when it comes to taking photographs. Like the films, Wenders’ photographs share a love of capturing places as well as quiet, quotidian moments and details throughout his travels across the United States, Far East, Australia and Europe. These are caught both in black-and-white panorama shots and in the idiosyncratic colorscape of the Polaroid, Wenders’ camera of choice during the 1960s to 1980s. MODERN PAINTERS spoke to Wenders in London, on the occasion of the opening of a new exhibition, “Wim Wenders. Early Works: 1964-1984,” on at Blain Southern through May 5, about his history and relationship with photography. (The exhibition “Wim Wenders. Instant Stories”, which first showed at The Photographer’s Gallery in London last year, will open at C/O Berlin on July 7, marking Wenders’ first exhibition in Germany.)
No, they’re one and the same person, only that there’s even a third guy in the same disguise: a painter. And that wannabe painter came first. You see, I began taking photos from a very young age on. My father was an amateur photographer and he made sure that his son had a camera early on, at the age of six or so. I’ve taken photos all my life but didn’t think much of this activity, as I was focused on becoming a painter. And even when I got sidetracked, left the painting obsession and turned to filmmaking, I didn’t give much consideration to my photographs. Only slowly did it dawn on me that there was something that was linking all three desires together.
The word “attention” manifests itself often when you speak of your photographic practice. How much do you demand of your viewer?
My photographs didn’t really exist for a long time, because I simply never printed them. Sure, there were negatives and contact sheets, but no prints. The viewer was the missing link. I only became a photographer, when I realized that I needed the viewer to make these pictures real and to lift them out of their invisibility. Every picture is a suggestion and only becomes something through the act of seeing, first by the photographer, but just as necessarily, by the viewer. However, it’s not enough just to walk by and glimpse at an image. There needs to be a curiosity and an openness to push the picture into existence. This is just as much the case for films and paintings. Paintings don’t exist, because they hang in a museum, and films don’t exist because there are prints. I need the attention of viewers. Here’s that word.
Chris Marker said that “La photo, c’est la chasse,” that photography is a hunt that results in something eternal, rather than in a death. Could this be an apt way of approaching your work?
I’ve never seen myself as a hunter. I’ve always felt that my pictures found me rather than the other way around. The concept of hunting goes well with the American way of defining photography, which means “shooting” pictures, whereas I see myself more as a finder and gatherer of images.
From today’s perspective, when “truth” — a word often used when discussing your work — has become a seemingly devalued term, what do you mean by that word and how do you stay loyal to it?
There is a truth that happens in the very moment of taking a photo. What happens in between that moment and later, when that picture is shown, complicates the matter. There is something truthful in the old process of lifting the camera to your eye and light falling through the lens onto the film which then, chemically, produces a negative image. That analogue process together with its printing still comes close to an original truthful intention. However, at the same time, the eyes of today’s audiences have lost that innocent notion that photographic prints are still representing something truthful. In that reciprocity, the notion of truth has gotten lost.
Do you remember the first moment of taking photographs?
My first memory is me struggling with my camera. The camera I got from my father required me to look into the viewfinder from above, and I found this a very forced perspective. I wasn’t looking at the things I wanted to photograph, but down at my camera. That creates a whole different relationship between the act of seeing and the act of taking a photo. Ever since I preferred the cameras that you would lift directly to your eye. Like here, with the very first SX70 picture I took of my breakfast [“NY Breakfast,” 1973] when I was handed that brand new Polaroid camera in the breakfast room of the Gramercy Hotel in New York: cottage cheese with a cherry on top. Some of these very first SX70 pictures I took, like this one, running out of the hotel into the street, [“Through the Windshield, NY,” 1973] or this one, [“Surf City, N. Carolina,” 1973], they show these cracks that I like very much, because this craquelure reminds me that ultimately, photography is still linked to painting.
Photography often presupposes a level of nostalgia. First, in terms of the temporal distance between the moment that’s captured and its representation, but also in terms of analogue film as an anachronistic medium that’s dying out. What is your relationship to nostalgia?
Let’s try to get another handle on the idea of nostalgia. If you look at any photographs that are 40-50 years old, of course, you can’t help but have nostalgic thoughts. For me, that’s a problem, however, since I’m not a nostalgic person. My photos are very much about a moment in time, and, if ever, I even tried to project that moment into the future. I’ve never been good at looking at the past. Nostalgia necessarily involves a longing for something that is gone, which is a feeling I never shared. I was always curious about how things would evolve, and I see a picture as the beginning of a story rather than an ending. Nostalgia is an unproductive feeling.
Most of your photographs were taken during travels, but you are also very much a storyteller. Are your photos documentary?
That is not a contradiction. There can very well be an element of storytelling in any documentary process. Every picture tells a story that begins at the moment the camera shutter clicks. The longer you look at a place, or at a picture of a place, the more you begin reading its story. It starts telling you what it knows about us humans. Places know a whole lot about us. You just have to be patient to let them tell you.
Many of your photographs are focused on places, rather than on people, but they’re also indexes of people’s presence. They hold remnants, traces, signs, and references to people, to human activity, to civilization, as well as to hope, loss, departure, and broken dreams. For example here, with “Twin Graves and Drive-in Cinema, Marfa, Texas, 1983,” I never found out what happened to these two boys. They must have been twins. Maybe they were born dead? The image doesn’t show a cemetery; it’s taken by the side of a road in Marfa, which has since become a pivotal place in American art. When I took these photos, nobody could tell me about the fate of Timothy and Jason, whose names are written on these makeshift crosses. The drive-in’s blank screen in the background is also a provocation. It summons you to tell their story. Every image is an effort for you, the viewer, to complete it.
How important is the notion of the gaze and presence to you?
If the two of us walk out of this gallery, are these pictures still functioning as “photo-graphs,” as “light-drawings”? Every picture needs two pairs of eyes. It needs the eyes who take the photograph, and the eyes who see it. That is the real function of photography: to link two pairs of eyes. There’s very little on this planet that is more communicative than photography. Some people might argue that movies are, but they involve many more people in their production and reception. Photography is a very intimate act between two people.