Street Corner Butte, Montana, 2003. Image © Wim Wenders.
In one of the opening sequences of the 1974 film, Alice In The Cities, journalist Philip Winter sits under a boardwalk, laying out his Polaroids on the sand. Commissioned by his publisher to write about America, Winter has instead traversed the country photographing anything and everything with a prototype SX70. Not satisfied with the results, he shakes his head. “They never really show what it was you saw,” he says.
The film was co-written and directed by Wim Wenders, the German film director, playwright, author, photographer and producer behind Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987). “Philip Winter was my alter ego,” he says. “He takes pictures because he doesn’t know how to write about America. And I thought he was quite representative of the young man I was at the time.”
After a series of student films and rather dry shorts, Alice In The Cities was a charming and more playful turn for Wenders. And it is perhaps no coincidence that the breakthrough came after Wenders explored a subject that was close to his heart – photography.
Thirty-five years later, he returned to the subject of photography for his last feature, 2009’s Palermo Shooting. Shot in his hometown of Düsseldorf, the film stars former punk singer Campino as Finn, a fashion photographer who undertakes large, staged shoots and barks orders at a coterie of assistants. The contrast in personality with Winter couldn’t be starker but Finn doesn’t represent a change in the director’s personal outlook. He’s the antithesis of the director, who’s now a celebrated photographer in his own right, and his contrary approach serves as a comment on photography in the digital age.
“Finn is much less me than Philip Winter because Finn is a photographer [who is] content with photography,” says Wenders. “And as a contented photographer, he does use digital means to compose his pictures. You see him at work sometimes and you see that he’s replacing skies and creating new worlds through different photographs. The governing notion of photography today is that you produce an image.
“I’m not nostalgic,” adds Wenders firmly. “I just state that it’s a different approach, and it is much more of a painterly approach, to photography, and what I cherish about photography has got lost.”
Born Ernst Wilhelm Wenders in 1945, the young Wim Wenders started taking photographs at the age of seven, shooting animals in the zoo with a cheap, plastic camera. Photography came naturally to him but he also learned about image making from his father, who had been given an early Leica in the 1930s when he graduated from medical school. “That started a tradition of photography in the family,” says Wenders. “My father had a darkroom and even as a soldier in the war, he spent his nights in bathrooms, developing films and enlarging them himself. I was impressed because they looked like early Ansel Adams. They were nice prints and then he gave it up altogether and I sensed the regret. Maybe that’s what made me like it.”
Tribute to Audrey, 2005. Image © Wim Wenders.
Despite his early interest in photography, Wenders opted to study philosophy and medicine in Germany before moving to Paris as an apprentice engraver to the artist Johnny Friedlander. The experience was brief but it proved hugely influential. “I think that the history of painting really determined my entire sensibility, for photography as well as filmmaking,” he says. “Vermeer was my biggest hero, then later on it was definitely Hopper. Max Beckmann too. I think they all had a very, very distinct sense of place and an enormous feeling for composition, and my taste for composition comes from paintings, definitely.”
That strong aesthetic sensibility helped Wenders develop a distinct style for each of his early films. Working closely with his director of photography before the shoot, he would settle on a particular influence that would define the look of each movie. For Kings of the Road, a film about two melancholic young men travelling across Germany, he and director of photography Robby Müller turned to an icon of Depression-era photography. “That film was our Walker Evans look, and we really went deep into his photography to give the film that feeling,” says Wenders.
“I remember we did American Friend and had the walls of our room full of Edward Hopper paintings. But eventually I felt it was not a great approach any more. I felt it was better to not impose a look and have it in mind before I started but let the story itself be open to finding it. It took a while before I had the courage to do that, especially when I was a young filmmaker. I figured I needed to know the look before I started and that can be a mistake.”
Even so, Wenders continues to exert a certain amount of control over the aesthetic of his films. Unusually for a director, he prefers to frame every shot himself, selecting which lens to use and where to position the camera, just as he would when taking photographs. “Most directors of photography I work with are happy this way because they can concentrate on lighting and operating, and they usually respect you if you know exactly what shot you want,” he says. “Very often, the director of photography is the one who chooses the frame and it’s quite a responsibility if the director doesn’t really give them an idea of what shot he wants.”
In recent years, professional photographers have started to make impressive directorial debuts, from Anton Corbijn’s Control to Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Wenders has been impressed by what he calls these “cross-over adventurers”, although he believes the transition from high-end commercial or editorial photography to film directing is simpler, thanks to the presence of a large crew in both disciplines. He prefers to work much more simply, often visiting new cities alone or with his wife, Donata. She’s a published portrait photographer in her own right, and the couple work separately during their days away, only commenting on each other’s images back at home in Berlin several weeks later.
Cemetery in the city, Tokyo, 2008. Image © Wim Wenders.
“Taking pictures is a very solitary thing, at least for me,” says Wenders. “That’s why I wouldn’t even want to have an assistant with me, because the very presence of somebody else would make that more important than my relation to the place. And to immerse in a place is strictly only possible when you are on your own. You can fake it and you can pretend to want to listen to a place but as soon as there is someone else there, even if it is just a bystander looking at what you are doing, it is over. You are no longer in the privileged position of being a listener.”
Wenders’ forthcoming exhibition at London’s Haunch of Venison, Places, Strange and Quiet, collects together 31 photographs taken in cities across the globe, mostly in the past five years. The earliest image in the collection dates back to 1983, though, a year he regards as a turning point in his attitude towards the medium. Throughout the previous decade, he had been criss-crossing the US, photographing the local landscape while on the search for film locations. During the summer of 1983, after shooting had finished on the Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas, he decided to make his first print. “That was the moment that I thought photography had something to offer in itself,” he says. “I’d been taking pictures for decades without printing anything; I was happy with my contact sheets and it just never crossed my mind. Printing was taking it seriously. Ever since that innocence has gone, I’ve become a photographer: I take pictures so that I can print them.”
That first professional print led to Written In The West, a book and touring exhibition that began in 1986 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Several collections followed, often drawn from location scouting for films such as Buena Vista Social Club and The Million Dollar Hotel. In the early 1990s, Wenders became increasingly fascinated with sequential photography and the potential for storytelling through consecutive stills. His book, Once, contained some of his most personal photographs to date, accompanied by short, poetic captions and showing two or more shots of the same filming locations, random encounters and famous friends.
Today, he is dismissive of the concept explored in the book. “In photography, the absence of the montage is the most beautiful gift,” he says. “I know in Once, I was quite preoccupied with the idea and, every now and then, it is fascinating to see two pictures together. But if you show two pictures in succession, you start to comment, and the beauty of a single photograph is that it is enough in itself.”
With that in mind, the 65-year old focused his recent efforts on increasing the size of his prints, to provide viewers with a more immersive experience. And after more than 30 years of exploring America through photography and film, the locations have changed too, with recent visits taking in Japan, Tel Aviv and Armenia. “Don’t Come Knocking felt like a goodbye to the West and Land of Plenty even more so,” he says. “But, that’s only natural if you are so obsessed with something that you have eventually exhausted it. Other people find new things about America but I had felt that I had said what I had to say and there was really nothing to add.”
After spending so much time in the US, he has found it a relief to visit countries that he had no preconceptions of. Part of the joy of photography for Wenders is the time spent exploring and acclimatising to new surroundings, and it took time for him to comprehend and appreciate Armenia in particular. Landlocked and sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan, he believes that the small eastern European republic has maintained its independence thanks to having its own language and alphabet. “And that’s a strange and beautiful reason for a country to survive. It has no economic power whatsoever; they don’t have any oil, nothing. They’ve got apricots. That’s the only export. There are exiled Armenians all over the world who have sustained their country and I really got to like these people.”
Wenders thrives on unfamiliar situations and, while his images are often atmospheric and highly saturated thanks to his use of Kodak 160VC film, there is still a strong documentary aspect to his subjects. “The idea of preservation was always important for me,” he says. “Even in the movies we use many locations that I went out of my way to find because I realised they were not going to continue to exist much longer. That’s a valid reason for photography or for film, to show something that will vanish, because by taking the picture it is not vanishing. Something remains, amazingly enough.”
Open Air Screen, Palermo, 2007. Image © Wim Wenders.
Whether in a theme park in Tokyo, a Moscow backyard or a beachfront in Tel Aviv, Wenders has similar interests. His photographs reveal a fascination with architectural imperfections, unusual settings and side-lit street scenes viewed flat. As one might expect from an experienced feature filmmaker, the mood shifts throughout – abstract yet familiar, inquisitive yet detached. If figures do appear in his photographs, they very rarely make contact with the viewer, often standing with their back to the lens. It is as if Wenders is seeking solace in these lonely locations, freed from the constraint of a large film crew.
Achieving this still and contemplative atmosphere takes patience. Sitting in the buyer’s room of his gallery, surrounded by various expensive, unsold works of art, Wenders gestures towards one of his own large-scale panoramas on the far wall. “You have to search a little bit until you have the frame,” he says. “I very often stand there for a while, waiting for the light to change and, in this case, waiting for these little girls to cross. If you stand there, nobody watches you. If you rush to get the picture, they will look at you but if you are already standing there, you become part of the landscape.”
Impressively, given the depth in some of his landscape shots, Wenders works without a tripod to keep things flexible and portable. Despite making a commercial for the digital Leica M8, he prefers to work with a 35mm version and on his dedicated photography trips he packs a medium format Plaubel Makina and a Fuji 617 panoramic camera, which uses three lenses to produce 6×17 negatives.
“The beauty of the negative is that you still see the failed pictures, the ones out of focus,” he says. “You can still see how I learnt to take pictures by looking at my negatives. I like the mystery of negatives too. If you have a digital camera, no matter how determined you are, you will check your images and, in a strange way, it breaks the spell because already you treat it as something finished. There is something wrong in that. I like the fact that [with negatives] you are exposing yourself to a place and you don’t know whether you have it.”
Wenders cannot afford to leave things to chance on a multimillion pound film shoot, so his films are shot entirely in digital. But what the medium lacks in mystery, it makes up for in scope for experimentation. Commissioned to produce a film for the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale, he constructed a prototype 3D filming rig comprising of two Nikon 5D cameras and produced a 20-minute film installation about the Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland.
“3D was an adventure in itself, even more remote from photography than a regular film,” he says. “3D is certainly interesting for documentaries because you can take people really into the space where other people live and work and exist, you can really take them there in a different way. Most of the stuff I’ve seen in the last couple of years uses 3D as an attraction or a carnival ride, but it is not necessarily a fantastic tool for telling stories.”
Wenders’ forthcoming feature, Pina, was also shot in 3D, but he didn’t take a single photograph during the shoot. To compensate he intends to make a photography trip to Africa soon, a continent he briefly explored when he made a short documentary in Congo for Medicos Sans Frontières five years ago.
As he gets older, he has found that he can no longer give both photography and filmmaking his full attention on a single trip, and he can’t bring himself to pack two cameras as he feels “like two different people would have to make that journey”.
As if embarrassed by the confession, he leans forward to whisper his explanation, confiding: “I’ve realised that the photography I like can only be done purely and it needs a very different approach. Of course, I can take pictures with my iPhone theoretically, and I do every now and then, but I’m not a photographer with it – I’m an everyday man. Photography is a state of mind.” BJP
Haunch of Venison is showing an exhibition of photographs by Wim Wenders, Places, Strange and Quiet, from 15 April to 21 May. Wenders’ new documentary, Pina, will be released in the UK on 22 April.
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