Places, Strange and Quiet

Exploring the moment, highly acclaimed director and photographer, Wim Wenders, brings his distinctive style and sensitive imagery to London.

While scouting for locations for his film, Paris, Texas (1984), Wim Wenders embarked on a long, circuitous road trip around the American West, taking pictures of deserted one-horse towns, neglected billboards and half-demolished buildings. Seduced by the decrepitude of the scenes he found, he became interested in photographing things “already half eaten away by the elements and in the process of disappearing.”

Wenders began to travel to towns far too remote to set up shooting a film, but that were easily accessible with his collapsible Plaubil Makina camera. Somewhere between Odessa, Texas and the sleepy Las Vegas, New Mexico, he began seriously taking photographs in their own right, separate from his feature-film preparation. As a new exhibition of his photographs at Haunch of Venison, London, makes clear, the intervening period has seen Wenders develop a distinctive photographic style, characterised by large-scale images of unglamorous corners, neglected buildings and overlooked viewpoints.

Entitled Places, strange and quiet, the exhibition dove-tails Wenders’ parallel career as a filmmaker, mirroring his travels to film locations and film festivals around the world. As curator, Claudia Stockhausen points out, visitors to the show who choose to look for “hints to his filmography will be pleasantly surprised to find Wenders searching for something different” in his photographs. While many of the photographs are taken on location for films such as Palermo Shooting (2008), Don’t Come Knocking (2005), Tokyo-Ga (1985) and Paris, Texas (1984), it’s as if the photographs are the negative or flipside of Wenders’ artistic sensibility, captured moments without the need for filmic conventions such as narrative or character development. “Photography”, Wenders has commented, “gives me comfort for all the films I didn’t make. This is because there is no need for history. There is just the moment!”

At the beginning of Wenders’ film Alice in the Cities (1974), writer Philip Winter, played by Rüdiger Vogler, traverses the United States by road, taking hundreds of photographs with a collapsible SX-70, the prototype Polaroid camera. His stacks of snaps are endless visual notes towards an overdue journalistic commission that he can’t get started on because he’s overwhelmed by a drifting existential angst and underwhelmed by the procession of motel rooms, the radio-stations and the T.V. commercials. Back in New York, and on the verge of abandoning the job to return to Germany, he visits a friend who suggests his obsession with taking pictures comes from a desire “for further proof that it was really you who saw something.” It’s a quintessential Wenders film, his first foray into the road movie genre, and his first film to explicitly theorise about the medium of photography. In the character of Philip, Wenders combines a restless, drifting spirit, an obsessive need to take photographs and existential angst, all three of which so define his aesthetic, especially in his photographs.

In Street Corner, Butte Montana (2003) a bright red fire hydrant sits on the pavement like a punctuation point to the road’s yellow lines. Outside a corner thrift store, a damaged lamppost leans across the road as if it could snap at any moment, while a grid of telephone and electricity cables criss-cross beneath a saturated blue sky. Across the street, the buildings are almost indiscernible in gloomy shadows. This deceptively complex visual composition is pregnant with loneliness, emptiness and anticipation. As the actor and artist, Dennis Hopper, once said of Wenders’ photographs: “You notice each detail and imagine or feel what might have taken place there … They evoke a sense of loneliness very much like an Edward Hopper painting.” And just as Edward Hopper’s paintings seem to sit poised on the threshold of narrative, as if suppressed desire or violence were about to rise to the surface, so do Wenders’ photographs convey a tension between what we think might occur or have occurred in these neglected street corners, and a serenity from embracing the undramatic and the quiet.

The pictures span a period of 25 years and are taken in a wide range of locations including Salvador, Palermo, Onomichi, Brisbane, Armenia and the United States. Like the wandering drifters around which so many of his films are based, the diversity of these locations reveals Wenders’ own fidgety nomadic tendencies. Wenders’ photography embodies the postmodern nomad as theorised by Deleuze and Guattari. They convey a sense of the inability to see things from one point of view or standpoint, and an almost inexhaustible quest to avoid settling for the status quo. He has said in interviews that he sees himself as “first of all a traveller, before being a director, or a writer, or a photographer.” Since photography’s invention, it has gone hand-in-hand with travel, with exploration and discovery. As Susan Sontag wrote in her classic series of essays On Photography (1977): “The camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.” For Wenders, the camera in question is usually analogue. He has spoken in interviews of his reluctance to use digital cameras because of the tendency for the photographer to speculate in advance, while taking the picture, about how the image will be manipulated afterwards. In Wenders’ view this prevents the digital photographer from observing the scene properly, because the mind has already moved elsewhere, further forward, to the editing stage. “I think back then [before the digital age] you had to admit yourself to the landscape, if you photographed landscapes.”

It follows from this aesthetic choice that many of Wenders’ images are characterised by marks and puddles that other photographers might be tempted to retouch or erase, such as the imperfect blotches on an otherwise sparkling Palermo promenade in Sun Bather, Palermo (2007). The pavement blemishes are a counterpoint and an antidote to the garish polka dots on the pristine sun-loungers, and add to the sense of loneliness and emptiness that the picture conveys. This picture is unusual in the exhibition, in that it’s one of only a handful in which a human being features in the shot. Hunched over with one elbow on his knee and his back to the lens, the sunbather could be quietly contemplative, or discussing business on his mobile phone, it’s hard to tell. With his bronzed back and canary yellow swim shorts, the photograph seems to frame the sunbather as a part of the furniture, a part of the scene, rather than as the focus of the shot, which could be either the foregrounded polka dot beds, or at the back of the shot, an imposing and rocky Sicilian hill.

Wenders’ photographs bear comparison to the influential photographers of the Düsseldorf School who emerged during the 1980s under the tuition of Hilla and Bernd Becher. In his use of large-format printing, Wenders’ work recalls the oversized industrial and commercial scenes of Andreas Gursky and the oppressively large-scale, sky-scraper-lined streets in the photographs of Thomas Struth. Gursky and Struth’s subject matter mirrors the size of their prints, tending towards the busy and the monumental, but it seems important that Wenders’ lens veers towards neglected and decrepit spaces. It seems important in this regard that Wenders, the slightly older artist, born in 1945 in a Düsseldorf torn apart by war, focuses on quiet, abandoned and often damaged places, whereas the younger artists reflect the dynamic and stifling onslaught of post-war capitalism. In The Old Jewish Quarter, Berlin (1992), Wenders photographs boarded up windows and decrepit stonework on a nondescript street, daubed with numerous splurges of red spray-paint. Ambiguously horrific and peaceful, the marks look alternately like open-wounds and poppy-heads.

The Red Bench, Onomichi (2005) shows an empty red bench overlooking the frame of a metallic turquoise railing, and behind it the dull grey painted wall of a battleship. Onomichi is a city in the Hiroshima prefecture and is one of the locations that Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu used to shoot his famous film, Tokyo Story (1953), on which Wim Wenders reflected enthusiastically in his essayistic documentary film Tokyo-Ga (1985).

For Tokyo-Ga, Wenders travelled to Japan to see if the world that Ozu’s films capture was still there, or whether the heady pace of post-war modernisation had obliterated it. It’s also a meditation on Ozu’s films and a study of his technique. Ozu was famed for his “tatami-shot”, where the camera was positioned low, as if from the viewpoint of someone seated on a tatami mat. The empty red bench in Wenders’ picture is a kind of homage to Ozu and his grounded observations. The unoccupied seat is a recurrent image in Wenders’ work. The first Polaroid we see Philip take in Alice in the Cities is of a deserted lifeguard’s seat on a beach. Empty seats are also a recurrent theme in many of Wenders’ photographs in Places, strange and quiet. It’s as though the empty seats invite the viewer to inhabit the landscapes in his photographs. They’re also an indication of the photographer’s restlessness, always a stranger, always on the move, the photographer positioned behind the seats, rather than settled atop one.

Open Air Screen, Palermo (2007) features an audience of uninhabited plastic orange chairs in front of a blank stage. Set out in neat rows, frayed at the edges with the odd skewed chair, and under a canopy of a single obstructive palm tree, the empty seats convey a lonely awkwardness in anticipation of the outdoor screening. The ground is grey and dusty, irregularly pocked by miniature sprouting archipelagoes of green weeds. The sky looks vague, overcast and heavy, as though a curtain of rain were about to drop. It’s a classic example of the strange and easy-to-neglect scene that so enchants Wenders: “I seem to have sharpened my sense of place for things that are out of place. Everybody turns right, because that’s where it’s interesting, I turn left where there is nothing! And sure enough, I soon stand in front of my sort of place. I don’t know, it must be some sort of inbuilt radar that often directs me to places that are strangely quiet, or quietly strange.’’

People are notably absent from most of Wenders’ photographs, but there’s usually a trace that there have recently been people present, a man-made object of some kind, or in a number of pictures, scrawled graffiti. In Eastern Germany, Gorlitz (2006), on a pale stone building with curved arched windows, upper-case black spray-paint letters depict the slogan, in English, “CRUSH CAPITALISM!” The dot of the exclamation mark is a crudely drawn star. Sitting proudly above the graffiti, and in the straw colour of sandstone, the arches almost look like faded McDonald’s Golden Arches.

Wenders’ frontal shot doesn’t seem to interfere or pass comment on the scene, merely presenting it baldly for what it is. It’s a captured moment before the town council gets the slogan wiped off. The graffiti is a momentary trace of human presence in an otherwise deserted picture, conveying at once a presence and an absence. As so often in Wenders’ pictures, the most strongly felt presence is Wenders himself. Though never present in front of the lens in these pictures, these strange and quiet photographs amount to a cumulative portrait of a subtle, exploratory and restless artistic consciousness. As Wenders puts it: “The camera works both ways.”

Places, strange and quiet opened at Haunch of Venison, London on the 15 April 2011 and ran until 17 May 2011.

Colin Herd