Celebrated landscape and portrait photographer Nadav Kander reflects on his very first camera, a Pentax Spotmatic F
When I was young there was a walk-in cupboard in my house that smelt of the leather cases of equipment stored there… various mechanical things such as movie cameras owned by my grandfather. I would go in, wind the cameras up and listen to them whirl in the dark; I must have been eight years old. To this day the smell of leather still reminds me of machines and quality.
I was 12 when I caught a bus to a store called Dion in Johannesburg. I looked at the cameras and started saving, and a year later returned to buy a Pentax Spotmatic F, the last camera to use a screw-in lens rather than a bayonet. I also bought extension tubes, which are used between the lens and the camera body to get extremely close to things. My first pictures were of dead flies on a windowsill. It was 1974.
I didn’t stay with the Pentax but I see a thread that runs through my work, from those early fly pictures to the present. I’ve always liked to look into things, to show things not easily seen with the eye, or that are not easily noticed – things photographed beautifully that are difficult or hard to look at. I take pictures of vulnerability, terror, love, horror – never of people smiling; I like to look at what is underneath.
This camera is still in perfect condition. I loved it as an object, the clicks it made and the feeling of focusing the lens. I loved its precision, and it’s that that led me into photography – not the need to make pictures, but the need to use an instrument with great precision.
Clare Grafik, curator of a new exhibition of Wim Wenders’s photographs, talks to Port about the director’s creative vision, connections between art and technology, and the Polaroid aesthetic
When Clare Grafik, the head of exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery, discovered that the Wim Wenders foundation had recently unearthed boxes of Polaroids that had been untouched for thirty years, she was immediately inspired. “If we work with an artist who is already well known, we’re interested in asking what part of their oeuvre is less familiar. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t even know what the Polaroids are like, but I want them.’”
Wim Wenders, the celebrated director of Paris, Texas (1984), is best-known as a filmmaker, though his photographs of large-scale, panoramic landscapes have also been widely exhibited. For Grafik, Wenders’s unassuming collection of Polaroids, amassed over nearly twenty years, represented a completely new direction for the artist. “He’s such a polymath, his creative vision is so versatile. It’s very unusual, I think, to be able to move between different mediums… I think he’s genuinely carved out quite an individual voice in each.”
In the intimate gallery space hosting Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’ Polaroids, over 200 photographs have been subtly framed on the walls, grouped under poetic, evocative titles: ‘Alice in Instant Wonderland’, ‘A Man Named Dashiell’, ‘Looking For America’. “For Wim, the process of collating the images moved from being a visual to quite a diaristic experience,” explains Grafik, and the chapter headings dictated the structure of the exhibition. ‘Alice’, for example, refers to Wenders’s early film, Alice in the Cities (1974), about the wanderings of a young European man in America, who becomes obsessed with photographing the strange things he sees.
Shortly before filming Alice, Wenders was given a prototype of the Polaroid SX70 which would become so prominent in the film. Making the film was also Wenders’s first experience of America; he had arrived, like many Europeans, with preconceived ideas of the landscape. The exhibition section ‘Looking for America’ depicts Wenders’s outsider’s gaze, taken to an extreme as he scouted for locations. The section details his “disappointment at not finding what he had in his mind”, Grafik says. This disillusion was, however, a key part of the process. “What I enjoy about Wim is that he’s got a centre of gravity to his vision, which allows for those cracks in the iconography. He’s in no way an idealist about these things.”
Wenders considered the restrictions and informality of the Polaroid – it’s limited technological abilities, and inability to take panoramic pictures – to be a breath of fresh air. “The way people treated the Polaroid wasn’t burdened with history in the same way as a medium format camera, there was no expectation that you would create great art works with it, unlike film,” Grafik explains. “The idea that Polaroid was like a toy, was really freeing for him.”
Printed on a wall in the exhibition is an excerpt written by Wenders from Instant Stories, the book published by Thames & Hudson which accompanies the exhibition.
It was a little magic act each time – nothing more, nothing less.
I don’t think I’m romanticising when I allege
that Polaroids were the last outburst of a time
when we had certainty, not only in images.
We had nothing but confidence in things, period.
After 1984, Wenders returned to shooting with film. The Polaroid had served its purpose. What made him decide to just stop? I wonder. Grafik pauses. “I think for Wim, there was a period when Polaroid did just what he needed it to do,” she says thoughtfully. “It provided exactly what he needed at that point, and then it just didn’t work for him any more. At some point technology moves on and continuing it would seem somehow a conceit.”
Wenders may not have considered his off-the-cuff images as art at the time they were produced yet, since then, as an art form the Polaroid has been wholly legitimised. Will photography considered equally ephemeral in 2017, such as selfies on Instagram, feature in exhibitions thirty years from now? “That’s a massive question!” Grafik laughs. “It’s open as to whether the taking of imagery now functions in the same way as photographs taken in the 70s were. There’s the practical question of archiving: how these images are archived, whether they even should be. It’s hard to say what will exist thirty years from now, what visual culture will mean to us.”