Photography is an artform that inherently captures time and expands a single moment to eternity. Although all photography is a record of an instant, the feeling of time, movement, and authenticity vary immensely according to the technique used. The vast difference between the current and the previous photos on display at The Photographers’ Gallery illustrate the power of the medium in creating unique, meaningful compositions.
The Photographers’ Gallery is an exhibition space solely for photography near Oxford Street in London. They have numerous temporary exhibitions throughout the year as well as workshops and events about photography.
Instant Stories, Wim Wenders’ Polaroids, the current exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, is a whimsical display of genuine shots.
A renowned film director, Wenders explains in his video interview that Polaroids used to be an obsession for him as well as a method of previewing shots and angles he was to use in his movies. Therefore, the exhibition is split into sections named after his movies, the Polaroids in each section are those taken during the shoot. Some photos were in fact taken by actors as part of the script (like in Alice in the Cities).
The Polaroids are displayed in medium-sized passepartout frames with white cardboard and grey borders. They are aligned in either single directional chronology, like the frames of a movie, or in groups of four.
The exhibition is brilliant in exposing the method through which Wenders decided on his shots during filmmaking as well as narrating the release of Polaroids and their significance in the creative market.
It is fascinating how the of the medium, Polaroid photography, contributes to the feeling of genuineness. Although the images are of artificially composed scenes, being acted out for a scripted movie, the Polaroids add a certain authenticity to the subject. This effect demonstrates the power of Polaroids in storytelling. When depicted through Polaroids, a form of photography that feels very spontaneous and sincere, even a contrived occurrence, a movie scene, can seem organic. Seeing these images establishes a certain connection between the viewer and the movie. The images are almost like mementoes of the event itself, not the movie or the filming, but the actual act. The unrefined nature of the photos on display makes the viewer question the difference between reality and scripted act. The movie becomes a natural part of life, a record of actual events, proved by Polaroid photographs taken during the occurrence.
The previous exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, Cathedral of the Pines by Gregory Crewdson, depicts refined, dramatic scenes of characters at various locations in the town of Becket, Massachusetts. The lighting and the editing of the images are meticulously planned to create animation-like photographs. It is curious how such organic settings and subjects can be made to look so unreal, closer to a painting than a photograph. The people seem like characters in a movie or in history rather than actual living inhabitants of the village.
Untitled (Sunday Roast), 2003 – 2005, Gregory Crewdson
The vast difference between Polaroid photography and precisely lighted, sculpted image-making is striking in terms of the effects they create. Although both Instant Stories and Cathedral of the Pines display shots of artificially and deliberately constructed scenes, they create peculiar atmospheres. The instantaneous, playful character of Wenders’ Polaroids feel much more inadvertent, like a random magical moment that quickly fades away in reality, yet keeps re-occurring as a single image flashing in front of one’s eyes. The frozen scenes are still momentary, they don’t expand time to infinity, instead, they repeat the same second infinitely. On the other hand, Crewdson’s polished images devise a world of their own. They capture the viewer and take her into their own reality where time stops and life only exists in the infinity of the scene.
Hence, the feelings each method of photography evoke are idiosyncratic in terms of their treatment of time and authenticity. In this sense, Instant Stories is almost like a contradictory response to the former exhibition. Rejecting the dramatic time-prolonging effect of crafted images from Cathedral of the Pines, Polaroids reply with whimsical, fickle yet confident instantaneity.
I will end with a quote form Wenders himself; the following caption by Wim Wenders captures the essence of Polaroid photography perfectly.
I did not like the way the Polaroids were displayed. They lost significance and disappeared in the comparatively larger frames they were placed in. The lighting was not ideal either (it was too dim), so both of these factors combined made the images hard to view until up close. I would have preferred to see the images on a black background with the original white frame of Polaroid films surrounding the pictures; or perhaps placed in between two sheets of glass, floating without any background or additional frame.
Let me know what you think about the exhibition in the comments if you visit The Photographer’s Gallery as well!