“MoMA put me to work,” Wim Wenders recalled recently, not without tenderness, “forty-three years ago to this day.” The stalwart director was referring to the museum’s inaugural New Directors/New Films program from March 7, 1972, which showcased, among a handful of other works, his second feature, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The film, adapted by Austrian author Peter Handke from his own novel, helped launch Wenders’s career, one of the most impressive and enduring in all of postwar German cinema.
But last Saturday, Wenders, clad in grey suit and trademark blue glasses, with a vintage Plaubel Makina 67 camera draped around his neck, was at James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea to talk about his photography, which was on view in the space, and not (necessarily) MoMA’s current retrospective of his film work.
“I discovered photography in America,” he said. On that fateful trip in 1972, his first to a country that would soon feature almost mythologically in films like Paris, Texas, he wandered around the Whitney, and later, downtown, where he saw an exhibition of Walker Evans’ work.
“Photography was not an art in Germany,” Wenders explained. “It was more tied to the family.” His own father was a “failed photographer” and surgeon in his hometown of Düsseldorf. After dropping out of medical school there, Wenders left the city to become a painter in Paris, where he cultivated an obsession with Dutch landscapes. “I could not get enough horizon,” he said at the gallery. “But I quit painting.”
His panoramic photographs, which are several feet long, shot on Kodak 220, and can only be printed in Germany, are likewise drunk on horizon. But it’s a disorienting, desert drunkenness that lingers on the desolate landscapes of Australia or the American West. “They are such scary places in terms of color,” he said, with emphasis on places. “In photographs the places can survive all by themselves.”
In films, Wenders contrasted, “place is modest. But the satisfaction of photography is the satisfaction of places.” One such place, shown in a photograph looming behind him, is the massive Bungle Bungle range in Australia—a strange, almost alien formation of sandstone towers—that was not a landmark when he photographed it in the 1980s. “Ever since I lost my way in there,” he said, “I dreamt of seeing it from above.”
Though this overhead photograph, and Wenders’s statement about it, brings immediately to mind the angel’s eye view of Berlin found in his seminal Wings of Desire, most of his photographic work hews closer to the alienation of his road movies. In fact, the appeal of photography for Wenders seems rather like that of a long drive where no one bothers you, a reprieve from the stories of others. And although he likened photographs to the first moments of a film, he confessed that he “prefers to imagine every photograph as a story that could stop.” It’s true: with their empty lots and landscapes, his images seem almost preloaded with abandoned narratives. “To a photograph, I come empty,” he said. “I come blank.”
The allure of photography has also inspired Wenders’s new film, The Salt of the Earth, a documentary about Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, one that is co-directed by Salgado’s son, Juliano. The film, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of last years’ Cannes Film Festival, bears some resemblance to the director’s recent Pina (2011), a 3D documentary about choreographer Pina Bausch, as well as last year’s Cathedrals of Culture, in which Wenders contributed a section on Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic building. In each case, cinema’s interaction with other arts is paramount.
So what is the glue that binds Wenders’s interest in documentary, narrative film, and photography? To explain, he returns to his first love. “The common link,” he said, “is painting. But you have to make some choices.” He then admitted that he sold a saxophone to buy his first movie camera. “It was a good career move.”
After surveying his career in photography, Wenders began to discuss, anecdotally, his most famous films. He talked about the miracles that led to the production of Wings of Desire, as when Handke, who was working on the film’s screenplay and had given up on the project, sent him a large envelope filled with angelic monologues just a few days into shooting. He also remembered Peter Falk’s time in Berlin, where the famous actor would wander the streets until the police searched him out. For a director who has made over forty films, Wenders is unfailingly generous when discussing each of them. But when asked about his return to America, the country that inspired his love of photography, the land once infused with so much mythological and mythopoeic grandeur, Wenders responded, on the 43rd anniversary of his first visit: “I lived here for a few years. Eventually the American reality becomes your own reality, and then you exorcise that dream.”