Six Mile Lake is located about 2 hours north of Toronto near the south eastern corner of Lake Huron. My grandparents had a summer cottage there and when we would visit them in Toronto whilst growing up my family and I would inevitably make the journey up. It was nearly always during the height of summer and as we left the artificial luminosity of the suburbs, the sprawling landscape would soon open up and endless highways would bleed into one another in the pulsing heat. Occasionally we would pass through the quiet and unassuming town of Midland which, even back then, registered as somewhere painfully normal, an idyllic formula for nuclear families replicated throughout North America countless times.
I can’t recall the smells or feel the textures of these memories and any sense of chronology has long since dissolved but what does remain, vividly, are the colours. If anything, they have intensified in my recollections, each time becoming more and more potent. The striking, warm blues in the vast sky, the reddish yellows of dust kicked up by other vehicles and the oily blacks of melting asphalt. It had been several years since I had revisited these memories, but walking into Instant Stories. Wim Wenders' Polaroids, and viewing the first Polaroid, where a billboard dominates most of the picture and, below and to its right, a guardrail and section of highway can be seen on top of a hazy, yellow sky, they return with all the fervour of having just been taken place.
Wenders estimates that he took as many as 12,000 Polaroids between 1973 and 1983, a time when his career as a film-maker was taking off, but only 3,500 remain. Culled from this period, they offer fleeting glimpses into his daily life; bustling cities, peculiar small towns, expansive deserts and the isolating romanticism of highways, hotels and motels. Because of this, they have an intriguing duality of being both throwaway, in part, afforded by their instantaneous production and being deeply intimate as they allow intriguing scenes from Wenders’ life to be captured, raw and unrefined and free from the constraints of an audience.
“If ever I had wanted to really take a picture of something, I would not have done it with a Polaroid. I never thought of it as giving the real picture” In one series, windows are used as framing devices to view cities and landscapes through. The rooms they were taken in are silhouetted and feel as though we are vicariously stealing a profoundly introspective moment. In another, a crowd of people are waiting to cross a street in New York in the dead of winter and a flatbed truck turns into an intersection as the sky darkens forebodingly above it. All tend to lack the direct relatability found in domestic photography but highlight the visual syntax that would come to shape his films, in particular his films of this period, the Road Movie Trilogy: Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road (1976) and ultimately, Wenders’ most celebrated film, Paris Texas (1984).
The Polaroids, removed from the narratives surrounding their creation, are grouped into categories such as Looking for America and California Dreaming which help achieve a loose cinematic narrative between them. Others are more banal, such as Typewriters, which elevate the object in question to iconic stature.
They capture a by gone era of an America whose only intention was on self-discovery and to find a new, real voice in the wake of the end of the Second World War and the subsequent counterculture of the 1960’s which ended in bitterness and violence. Wenders’ films undoubtedly influenced and helped shape this voice but is one of many, many writers, musicians, film-makers and artists that mined America in order to achieve this voice. But what couldn’t have been foreseen was the impact of consumerist culture being the main exponent of American culture upon the rest of the world. In the case of Wenders’ Polaroids, the influence of this voice on television and cinema stirs up a strange occurrence inside you while going throughout the exhibition: a sense of false familiarity. The canyons and desert lined highways, the small-town chapels over-exposed or faded, punctuated by evocative colours, the ketchup and Coca-Cola bottles in roadside diners induce pangs of nostalgic deja-vu from their televised and cinematic counterpoints.
They entangle themselves in my own memories, of travelling to Six Mile Lake, of Midland, making them even louder, even more saturated. I return to the first Polaroid and pause, basking in the enormity of what it has awoken within me and I silently mouth the words of the vinyl text above it, ‘you couldn’t help feeling that you had stolen this image-object from the world, you had transformed a piece of the past to the present.’