A True Thing – Wim Wenders on the Polaroid

Our new exhibition, Instant Stories. Wim Wenders’ Polaroids opens this Friday and in the following short essay the filmmaker recalls his personal history with the polaroid photograph, regarding them as the last miracle of the analogue age and a formative tool for his work as a filmmaker.

Wim Wenders, Self-portrait, 1975 © Wim Wenders. Courtesy Wim Wenders Foundation

What a unique thing Polaroids were! Once almost science fiction, now definitely from the past, they occupy a very special place in our relationship to imagery and to photography, certainly in mine.  

For a long time (more or less from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s) they were my preferred photographic medium. I was learning the craft of filmmaking in those years, and Polaroids were a perfect complimentary tool:  as a visual notebook, a quick way of ‘framing’ the world, a verification of my interest in people, places, objects, or simply as a way to remember things.

Then I stopped – almost from one day to the next.   I started to shoot on negative again having (re)discovered printing.  Before, I had never really done that. Handmade prints had been too expensive for me, and I felt industrial ones just looked plain ugly.  With Polaroids, that dilemma never even arose.  When you took the picture, you automatically produced a print – or something very much like it:  a mysterious and unique object of desire. Taking Polaroids always felt to me like a very different act than ‘photographing‘ as such. The camera itself was almost considered a toy, not a ‘serious’ instrument, and taking pictures with it was fun. There was something playful, carefree, almost reckless about the action.  I think it was because the ‘thing‘ in your hand couldn’t be multiplied which made the result somehow ephemeral.   

I used all sorts of Polaroid cameras over the years. In the beginning, you could only photograph in black and white, and then colour stock was produced. After I took them, I would stick the pictures under my armpit to keep them warm while they were developing and keep an eye on my watch. Holding them there for too long would produce dark pictures; too short a time would make them look pale, lacking contrast.  I remember doing lots of things, like smoking, writing, driving or talking on the phone with both arms closely held to my body. Then, depending on the type of film, you’d peel off the cover. There was always a certain surprise involved and a heartbeat of suspense.  What was the image going to look like? Was it going to match the expectation? Often, what I had seen with my eyes wasn‘t necessarily what was revealed.

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

Then the SX70 arrived, a sophisticated little miracle of a machine. You could hold it in the palm of your left hand, pull out its viewfinder with your right hand and hold it at a strange angle to your eye to see your shot. Compared to a car, the SX70 was like the Citroen DS: it had that same touch of design genius.   For a while it was my weapon of choice; no more armpit, no peeling off; you just watched the image appear and take shape out of an amorphous whiteness.  The object you were then holding in your hand staring at while it was actually ‘developing’ (giving that word a whole new meaning) was indeed very special. There was no negative, from which you could make ‘duplicates, no files or any other data except for this ‘real and singular thing’; a little square photograph in its own frame. What you produced and owned was ‘an original’:  a true thing – not multipliable, not repeatable, just ‘solid evidence’, not only of what had just happened, but of your own existence, of existence!  

It’s a very different sensation in the digital age.  Holding a small screen in your hand or looking at an instant image on a screen is not the same.  Nothing compared to the Polaroid experience. 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.  

The last time I took a Polaroid myself is more than 30 years ago. This is time travel for me as well.  In their rock-solid presence as singular objects these old photos are a healthy antidote to contemporary picture taking, on smartphones or on other electronic devices and to sharing them via the Internet, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook. Polaroids were indeed a truly social medium.  I could take a picture of a person and we’d see the image appear, together, in front of our eyes. (Funny that there are apps today to recreate that sensation…) In their rock-solid presence as singular objects produced in the spur of a moment, Polaroids carry the entire imprint of that instant and can never be altered or forced to show anything other than what they are. 

But why make a book of these forgotten pictures (or indeed an exhibition)? Aren’t they just personal memories? Aren’t they more like drawings I made just for myself – a working process that doesn’t really concern anybody?  Don’t all these Polaroids reveal in the end, is that my life very much centered around the films I made and that these films structured my existence in such a way that I can’t tell them apart anymore? It has been an important issue in my life to never cross that fine line from ‘personal’ to ‘private’. But where does one end and the other begin?  And where does fiction come from, better, where do you draw it from?

It is obvious to me now, as a filmmaker and storyteller that the only things worth talking about are those in experience and based on one’s very own knowledge of the world.  And if by exploring what these small objects represent, and if they can shed some light on what we do today, well then it’s a good thing to share them.

Wim Wenders

Extracted from Wim Wenders. Instant Stories. Thames & Hudson, 2017. This essay is available in the new issue of our gallery print publication Loose Associations.

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