'Wim Wenders: Instant Stories' at The Photographer's Gallery, London

Exhibition: Wim Wenders: Instant Stories

Gallery: The Photographer’s Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies St, London, W1F 7LW

Dates: 20 October 2017 - 11 February 2018

Website (for images): www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk

Review by Megan Jean May

Wim Wenders: Instant Stories at The Photographer’s Gallery is like stepping foot inside the artists’ mind. This is the first time Wenders has exhibited his collection of Polaroids, albeit a small selection (200 out of the many thousands), all taken in the 1970s and 1980s. The Polaroids map a visual diary of Wenders’ life. They have a cinematic feel to them with the nostalgic saturation of colours, like a memory.

Wenders is interested in the idea of “the photographer and the act of taking a photo, the intention and the outcome.” Polaroids have a notion of instantaneity that creates a sense of ownership and authenticity - a printed snapshot capturing a specific moment in time. He says "the entire Polaroid process (and procedure) has nothing to do with our contemporary experience, when we look at virtual and vanishing apparitions on a screen that we can delete or swipe to the next one. Then, you produced and owned ‘an original’! This was a true THING, a singular object of its own, not a copy, not a print, not multipliable, not repeatable. You couldn’t help feeling that you had stolen this image-object from the world. You had transferred a piece of the past into the present."

For Wenders, the simplicity of the Polaroid - a transient moment captured and printed - also served as a test shot to record ideas for his films. They share a personal insight into his life, his thought process and his inspirations. Often featuring portraits of friends, family, crew and landscapes, the Polaroids are an impressionistic diary of a metamorphic journey through Europe and America. They have within them a reckless freedom like the wildness of teenage curiosity. They are charmingly innocent, whilst being distorted and distant like a dreamland shrouded in mystery and romance, whether it be an image of the Valley of the Gods, Utah taken in 1977; the winding, desert road fading into the distant horizon where the sky meets the valley and Wenders’ classic car is pulled over, door open wide. Or landscapes of foggy lakes with faded grey skies softening into the pools of water, beckoning the question, where does one end and the other begin?

Other examples of this poetic unknown include a silhouette of the Empire State Building, illuminated from behind by the mottled light of misty clouds and framed by the black rainclouds of an imminent thunderstorm, or the multiple polaroids of thick mists engulfing the New York City skyline, creating a hazy, magical realm.

The Polaroids are pieced together in a staccato yet precise order. They do not have individual titles, but are instead grouped, numbered and named under obscure and evocative titles, leaving the viewer to concoct and reflect on the content: 10) California Dreamin’; 20) Cloud Nine; 11) Alice in Instant Wonderland - photographs of a classic diner, whipped cream with a cherry on top, a glass Heinz tomato ketchup bottle next to a cup of black coffee. Parallels can be drawn through each titled series - multiple shots of crisp, blue skies of endless possibilities, dotted with white, wispy clouds that give no tell of where in the world the images were taken and distorted views through foggy windows or Wenders’ circular, blue-rimmed glasses, creating frames within a frame. Other groups feature The Golden Gate Bridge, a New York City fire truck, a billboard featuring the Marlborough Man towering into the intense blue sky - all seen as iconic clichés of Americana.

The notion of movement and freedom dominates the majority of the polaroids, with numerous shots of planes and cars and a blurred rush of hotel rooms in unclear locations like a looped narrative with no beginning or end, just a continuous ride adding to the nostalgic romanticism evoked. They act as a tribute to the American road trip, recording places travelled and people met, big cities with towering sky scrapers and small towns off desert roads, all with a painting-like quality featuring the chemical blue sky of a cult movie, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s film adaption of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

In today’s Instagrammable culture, the concept of photography has been morphed into a new kind of reality, where images are filtered and edited. In contrast, Polaroids have a certain attitude that conveys honesty and integrity. They are one of a kind and their instantaneousness, if anything, a forerunner to the consumption of digital photography now. “The image for me was always linked to the idea of uniqueness, to a frame and to composition. You produced something that was, in itself, a singular moment. As such, it had a certain sacredness.”

Megan Jean May studied an MA in art business at Sotheby's Institute of Art, New York. She is a writer based in London.