Wim Wenders: Pictures From the Surface of the Earthby Stephanie Buhmann
James Cohan Gallery
Making his New York gallery debut with an exhibition of selected photographs from the Pictures From the Surface of the Earth series, famed filmmaker Wim Wenders reconfirms the fact that he is first and foremost a visual storyteller.
Collected during his extensive travels and while location scouting for his films, Wenders’s photographs prove to be more than preliminary studies or a mere pet project. Seeking poetry in the slice of a moment, he elevates the overlooked, forgotten, and ordinary onto an innovative pedestal. Epically scaled and highly saturated, his rural and urban landscapes, ranging from the American West to Israel, appear to be both familiar and otherworldly. It is Wenders’s sensitivity to cinematic imagery and his ability to enforce an unusual mood that separates his depictions of mint condition cars parked in front of decaying buildings, lonely billboards in the California desert, picturesquely withered Indian cemeteries and small town store fronts captured in the harsh light of an early afternoon, from more conceptual works by Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, or Thomas Struth.
Navigating between a painterly feel reminiscent of Edward Hopper and a road-trip-sketchbook quality that brings Robert Frank’s approach in The Americans to mind, Wenders dips into rather traditional aesthetics. In "Wythe Landscape" (2000) a dark wooden farmhouse and three adjacent barns lie forgotten in the midst of the prairie. Devoid of any inhabitants, the picture draws the audience’s attention straight to the specifics of the building, its simple and functional structure. Dividing the compositional backdrop into almost equal halves of yellow grassland and blue skyscape, the low horizon line adds to the scene’s overall dramatization. When was the last time a sunny day has looked as mysterious or a farm more iconographic? Shot at dusk, "Flammable, Terlingua, Texas" (1983), features a damaged car parked in the deep shadows of a fuel station. Here the orange sky and green light of halogen lamps dominate the palette, providing the lonesome scene with a spooky as well as a deeply romantic aura. On the right, a small window leads the viewer’s gaze into the building, offering a peek at an employee’s profile. Too far from us to reveal enough clues regarding his personality, the man remains anonymous. Like a stranded whale on the beach, he looks rather out of place in this Surrealist colored setting and the human presence becomes strangely alien.
In "The Dinosaur and Family" (1983), this quality is pushed further when a family and their vehicle are shown in opposition to a dinosaur replica. Captured from the back and enveloped in the darkness of the night, father, mother, and son form a stark contrast to the impressive giant, who is spotlit by the car’s headlights. Parked behind them, the car does not only provide the only light source for the setting, but further functions as secretive enclosure for a fourth mysterious figure. Dipped in signal red light, an abstracted human outline can be traced. Reminiscent of a movie watcher in a dark theater, the figure is turned towards the scene ahead, becoming a simplified asset to the larger picture. Forced into the role of a third row observer, we become subject to the question "Who is watching whom?"
Though constantly spinning the globe, it is when capturing these flashes of Americana that Pictures From the Surface of the Earth is at its best. Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, Wenders was introduced to American culture long before his first visit to the United States in 1972. Growing up collecting comic strips, reading books such as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, watching American black and white movies (mainly Westerns), and embracing the arrival of rock music in the late 1950s, he soon developed an understanding of America as "the land of unlimited possibilities" and "unlimited fun". Though the experience of reality has clearly altered the original conception based on pop-cultural propaganda, Wenders still pulls reflections of these early ideals from America’s urban and rural facades.
When asked in a recent interview, why he decided to venture deeper into photography, he explained: "Our senses are extraordinary gifts that we've been given. And for me our eyesight is the most amazing one […] The act of seeing is such a complex process. We're receiving something, letting the world come into our hearts and minds, but by doing so we also give meaning to what we see, infuse it with beauty, receive it with love or hate". On display at James Cohan Gallery, Pictures From the Surface of the Earth will prove an intriguing introduction to Wenders’s gifted eye for those already familiar with his film work, as well as those in search of profound photography.