Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’s Polaroids

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

Valley of the Gods, Utah, 1977, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

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.” 

On the Road to New England, 1972, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

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.

Dennis Hopper, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

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.”

By an unknown photographer, 1971, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

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.” 

New York Parade, 1972, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

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.

Self Portrait, 1975, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

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.” 

Sydney, Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

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.”

Instant Stories: Wim Wenders’ Polaroids, will be showing at The Photographers’ Gallery until 11 February 2018

Dana Lixenberg: Imperial Courts

The Dutch photographer explains how portraits became stories in her Deutsche Börse Prize-nominated series

In 1992, Dana Lixenberg travelled to Los Angeles for a magazine story on the race riots that broke out after the Rodney King trial. Outrage had spread through the local community after King, an African American taxi driver, was filmed being savagely beaten by several policemen who were later acquitted. 

After witnessing the one-dimensional reporting that seemed to reduce the complex and cultural situation to simplified gangland stereotypes, Lixenberg returned the following year to photograph residents of the Imperial Courts housing estate in Watts. The people there went on to become the focus of her 22-year project, Imperial Courts. Taken between 1993 and 2015, the series of portraits and its publication has earned the Dutch photographer a nomination in this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.

The project began with her introduction to OG Tony Bogard, leader of the Imperial Courts Crips faction and unofficial “godfather” of the community. ‘When I was introduced to him, he was very reluctant to trust me, or even work with me,’ Lixenberg recalls. ‘I kept showing up at his house and, eventually, he relented. Tony introduced me to his friend Andre who had just gotten out of jail, needed work and was interested in photography. I would meet him everyday at the playground with my camera, and we would hang out and he would make the introductions,which was very important. Tony had given his approval.’

‘Freeway – 1993’ © Dana Lixenberg

Despite Bogard’s approval, Lixenberg was still met with wariness. ‘A lot of people didn’t want to have their picture taken,’ she continues. ‘I was seen as a negative. There was a lot of media attention due to a fear of new riots following the retrial of the four officers.’ In the end, Lixenberg’s slow, patient approach set her apart from the media frenzy. ‘When I showed them the polaroids, they started to come around.’

The direct style of Lixenberg’s portraits is a defining quality throughout her work. ‘I like it when people don’t perform too much, when you try and create a space where someone just is,’ she says. ‘For me it’s all about the person, looking at each individual and tuning into the mood and the moment. Whether the beauty is shown through a tilt of the head, the body language, or the texture and light, there’s a genuine exchange between me and the subject when I’m photographing them.’

‘Tish’s Baby Shower – 2008’ © Dana Lixenberg

The 1993 photographs were exhibited in the Netherlands, and published in Vibe magazine, after which the work was shelved for fifteen years. ‘I didn’t feel compelled to do a follow-up,’ says Lixenberg. ‘That was never my intention when I did the first series but I’d given people prints and had stayed in touch over the years, and then, as more time passed, the responses became more powerful, and the residents would ask when I was coming back.’

‘Dee Dee with her son Emir – 2013’ © Dana Lixenberg

Lixenberg returned to Imperial Courts in 2008, but quickly found that it wouldn’t be enough to simply produce new versions of the portraits she took in the 90s. She wanted to take the project further, and portray the community in all of its complexity. ‘I wanted to photograph new people and new generations, and make group shots and landscapes. I used sound recordings to document the residents’ reactions to the portraits so they could tell their stories in their own words, and video to show the movement and soundtrack of the area.’

Despite a few cosmetic changes, the social conditions of Imperial Courts had not improved. She found that the project, however, had become less political and more personal. It had become about memory and family, and the bonds that make up a community. ‘People had passed away or were spending time in prison. New generations were born, and the pictures started to carry more weight. The more time passed, the more stories the pictures held. The pictures became stories.’

Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts 1993-2015 is on show at the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 11 June