Wim Wenders: Photography of Place

, 2010/03/16

All my films start with places- cities, deserts. But then in the process of filmmaking, these places step into the background. The characters and stories become paramount, and finally the only parameter of the movie is the truth of that story, and the truth of the characters overriding everything else. With photography I can reverse the process, and I can leave these places up front. They are what the pictures are about.” – Wim Wenders

Commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris to create a film about fashion, Wim Wendersdelivered Notebooks on Cities and Clothes, an idiosyncratic film/video essay on identity, the medium(s) of cinema, and the designs of Yohji Yamamoto. Pondering the present, Wenders, a true global citizen, finds a bilingual metaphor to describe this most transient of art forms. “It seemed to me that Yohji expressed himself in two languages simultaneously,” he says in German-accented English. “He played two instruments at the same time: the fluid and the solid, the fleeting and the permanent, the fugitive and the stable.”

Wenders himself plays two instruments- more precisely, he uses two kinds of camera: one that captures the moving image, elusive in time, and the still camera, creator of definite objects in space, a device for immobilizing space and time on paper. His practice of emotional, and narrative energies. “All my films start with places- cities, deserts,” the artists says as we walk around the James Cohan gallery in New York City, the present home of his then traveling exhibition, Pictures from the Surface of the Earth. “But then in the process of film making, these places step into the background. The characters and stories become paramount, and finally the only parameter of the movie is the truth of that story, and the truth of the characters overriding everything else. With photography I can reverse the process, and I can leave these places up front. They are what the pictures are about.”

As a filmmaker, he is a highly skilled poet of place. Rising with the New German Cinema of the 70s, his first preoccupation is the “road” (Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, Kings of the Road). His international triumphs in the 80s are explicit place-portraits: Paris, Texas and his beautiful Berlin film, Wings of Desire. The 90s pictures move toward both abstract fin-de-millennium globalism (Until The End of The World, The End of Violence) and extreme specificity (the Cuba of The Buena Vista Social Club). Unjustly maligned, his 21st century The Million Dollar Hotel is a singular re-imagining of Los Angeles. As a photographer, his large-scale panoramic prints evoke the same sharp-eyed wanderlust, and have traveled almost as extensively as their maker. His exhibits have circled the globe, from Santa Monica, California to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, to the Shibuya Seibu department store in Tokyo to New Zealand, Germany and Portugal.

Wenders has avidly traversed the planet guided by, propelled by, in search of, light. Two different kinds of light, as he sees it. With cinema, “whatever light it is that started when you wanted to make a particular film must pass like a relay from one hand to another,” he says. “As director you are the one who creates a structure within which light can start burning. Mainly your job is to make sure it doesn’t blow out.” Which is to say, as a filmmaker, Wenders is the architect. As a photographer, he is the architecture- a radically simplified architecture: no more than a pane of glass. Photographry is not about “communicating with the audience,” he explains. “I am the translator, the messenger, the medium. I have created the communication between these places and these people in front of it. Here I try not to be there. Put every spectator into my position and then walk away.” Compared to filmmaking, “it is more transparent.”

Massive panes of glass, fifteen foot long panes of glass: you stand before At The Horizon: The Rocky Mountains, Montana as before an impossible, magnificent window. “I don’t interfere,” Wenders says. This window – affording views of the infinitely horizontal American West, or the profound vertical history of Jerusalem, or the poignant disintegration of Cuba- is also a screen for the projection of fantasy. “The reason I take the pictures is very often because of the stories that they start or the history that they reveal…sometimes pictures tell more about people through their absence…I try to print these pictures so that people are in my position when I took them.”

His composition, tending towards neat symmetries and a classical stability, is essentially haute postcard, colored, more or less, innocently, with reference: Edward Hopper, Andreas Gursky, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore. Wenders excels as a colorist above all. Red wounds on powder blue flesh; pale lime greens mixed with egg white; vanishing pink; a great chromatic scale of the brown and beige tones. Pictures From The Surface of The Earth is a banquet of light, an architecture of transparency, untitled film stills for unnecessary films.

This interview was originally published in Paper Sky No. 8 (Ogasawara, 2004).

Wim Wenders was born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1945. His ambitious career as a filmmaker spans four decades. Perhas most widely known are his “road” films from the 70s, Paris, Texas (1984, Palme D’Or at Cannes), Wings of Desire (1987, Best Director at Cannes), and The Buena Vista Social Club (1999). As a documentary filmmaker, Wendesr as also made Tokyo-Ga (1985), a tribute to Yasujiro Ozu, and Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989), a profile of Yohji Yamamoto. As in his films, “the road” has been the driving force in Wenders’ photographic career. At the time of this interview, six books of Wenders’ photographs have been published.

Ysujiro Ozu’s resting place is at the Engaku-ji in Kamakura.



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