It’s not too much of a stretch to say that without Wim Wenders ‘indie cinema’, particularly that of the late 80s and 90s, would lack a defining visual style. Growing up in provincial England, but in the days when BBC 2 and Channel 4 could be relied on to show off-beat films fairly regularly, his was the style that defined for me cool away from the mainstream. The eye that showed a fascinating, enigmatic world away from the mundane. Now Wenders is a photographer. A shot from this exhibition (just transferred from Sao Paolo) made the cover of the British Journal of Photography and a steady stream of people were popping in to Haunch of Venison to look over the 47 images on display. But this really isn’t a showcase of a filmmaker’s hobby – this is high quality photography and a major, important exhibition.
Take just one image at random. Okay: it’s #38 which comes in room 6 (there are 7 rooms). “Armenian Alphabet, Armenia, 2008”. Firstly let’s talk about the scale. In common with most of the works here it’s large. Not overpowering but appropriately vast. This time though we’re fairly close in to the subject which appears to be various characters (I’ll take on trust they are letters from the Armenian alphabet) standing like Rapa Nui statues in weak summer light in what appears to be a remote location far away from sight. Technically, the image is perfect as the light balances neatly with the natural colours of the landscape and the artificial tones of the oversized letters. Without a full page of explanatory notes I doubt I could ever comprehend what I am looking at. But not only does it fulfill the title’s requirement – strange and quiet indeed – but the places the viewer is taken in their mind as they reassemble and give meaning to the image are intriguing and ever so slightly disconcerting. The pictures may not be in motion any more but Wenders is still directing in that enigmatic, cool way.
In keeping with the title and focus of the works there aren’t many people present. A lone sunbather is almost lost amongst the loungers and the scenery; the Brisbane rodeo clown shot from behind. The style is very much of the time – using what could be termed a cold eye and in the main a washed-out pallette. If this wasn’t at Haunch of Venison it would fit into the Photographers’ Gallery programme without any major fuss.
There are some exceptions to that overall norm – for example the “Twin graves and drive in cinema, Marfa, Texas”, taken in 1983 and presumably at the time when Wenders was scouting for locations for ‘Paris, Texas’ that began his focus on this kind of photography, looks for all the world like it could come from Robert Franks’ ‘The Americans’, such is the use of juxtaposition in both framing and title. It’s one of only a few where the mood feels more forced.
Which is not to say the work is derivative or too stylistic. It certainly isn’t from that spectrum of modern photography where the artists’ vision needs to be explained before the viewer is able to formulate their response. Wenders says he is photographing things that are out of place or places that are strangely quiet (or quietly strange). And even without the gallery notes so much would be obvious. There is no deeper message other than: stop for a moment, consider this … And the exhibition is rather remarkable (and highly recommended) as a result.