I was aware of Wim Wenders thanks to some sort of avant-garde interview thing I only dimly recall: a woman’s voice reciting questions and breathlessly saying “Vim Vindehrrrs” over and over and over, and Wenders replying with some sort of images flashing across the screen and all of it auf deutsch. I think I have it on DVD somewhere maybe, probably bootlegged or otherwise duped. At the time, I was deeply invested in my art and/or grad school education, and so dug the (to me) nonsense interview. I couldn’t understand a word of it (despite 4 years of Deutsch in die Hoch Schule). smh. And guess what? I never saw a Wenders film… Not Paris, Texas, not the Buena Vista Social Club, none of them. :facepalm:
So when I started seeing Wenders mentioned on the @filmphotographic or @jasonlee Instagram, I knew the name and had an idea, I thought, but I didn’t know he was a photographer and it took awhile before I bought a book. Written in the West Revisited was the first one I went for, or the first one I grabbed off the to-review shelves anyway.
As the title suggests, Written in the West Revisited is a revised & expanded version of Wenders’ 1987 book Written in the West. According to a sort of afterword-in-poem-form, Wenders “… left out several photos that were in the first issue edition of the book / and that I no longer felt were so important, / so I could add these new photos and the chapter on Paris in Texas.”*
From that, you can intuit the layout of the book: following an interview with Alain Bergala auf deutsch (and helpfully translated in an insert), there are selections from Written in the West, then Wenders’ poem/afterword thing, then pictures made in the 2000s (I think) in Paris, Texas, where—surprise!—he didn’t spend much time or shoot any film for Paris, Texas.
Again, I haven’t seen it, but apparently Paris, the Texas city, is a sort of shangri la for Travis of Paris, Texas: he dreams of it, plans for it, but never actually gets there (and I should really watch the movie one day). Regular readers of this blog (there aren’t any) may see parallels to my earlier claims around Wenders…
In working on my review of Lauren Withrow’s Somewhere at the Edge of the World, I made the comment that her pictures reminded me of the photographer, painter, director, and polymath. I then pulled out Written in the West Revisited and, lo and behold, it’s almost all about signage in the American Southwest: we love our signs, out here. There’s maybe two heroic, riding-off-into-the-sunset pictures, and a couple of other landscapes, but it’s almost all signage and very few portraits, posed or otherwise. There is virtually nothing in Revisited that has anything in common with Withrow’s wildly different work and my claims to the contrary are laughable.
Still, and while Wenders’ images and project have virtually no relationship to Withrow’s, I stand by my remarks in my earlier review, and happily admit my overall ignorance of photographers and their oeuvres.
And, to be honest, when I looked at Written in the West Revisited next to Withrow’s work, I didn’t really get it. Even after, I kept looking, but just didn’t really get it. It wasn’t until I read the interview carefully one evening and got an understanding of Wenders’ project, that I really came around to the pictures. In general, his ideas on photography and ways of working and thinking about the medium are very close to my own, though he’s much more invested and committed than I’ll ever be.
In some ways, the photographs are notational, like list making, note taking, and the book is, as mentioned, largely a collection of signs. As Wenders travelled around the West in preparation for Paris, Texas, he hopped out of the car every chance he got and walked around with a 28mm on a Leica, making reference pictures for Paris, Texas, and his Plaubel-Makina 67, for a more personal set of reference pictures. Later, when the Centre Pompidou asked Wenders to put on an exhibition, the personal pictures from the Plaubel were the first ones he thought of, and Written in the West (and many years later Written in the West Revisited) was the result.
As a casual OpenRCT2 player with dreams of building a mega park based on what might have happened had a long-gone town in North Texas been founded by a wealthy foreigner whose descendants revitalize the town by converting it into a theme park, I see loads of potential reference images in Written in the West Revisited myself. It’s a sort of time capsule that reminds me of my youth. And that was really Wenders’ aim, even more than “mere” notation.
The signage and buildings Wenders photographed were all 20 or more years old when he photographed them—and the pictures he made for the Revisited portion were made 20 years after that. In the interview, Wenders talks about Atget and Evans and the preservational aspects of photography, of wanting to capture the western aesthetic before it was swallowed up by the desert or whatever. There’s a sort of assumption that all of the signs and colors he saw would quickly fade into nothing. Maybe some of them did, but even though we built things frighteningly quickly, we built them to last, even if they didn’t, really.
I haven’t done it, and maybe someone has, and if not, it’s an interesting idea, but it would be interesting to try to find these places today and see what they look like now…
So I went to Google Street View and tried to find a few. Last time Google drove by, most of the stuff seems to be long gone. Hammet Bakery and Nony’s Hamburgers in El Paso are now Diana’s Bakery and Roberto’s Cabinets, neither with the great colors and mere remnants of the signs they had in the 80s; the Permian Basin Christian School is closed and its great blue busses all named after apostles and prophets are long gone; the Needles, CA Denny’s building is still there, albeit now housing the Panda Garden Chinese Restaurant; The Lowell Theater sign still exists, though it’s now Lowell Mile High Enterprises Contracting Services. So the preservationist aspect of Wenders’ (and all) photography remains, even though most of the places and buildings still do too, if in a different guise now. It’s not like Atget’s Paris, which was going even as he photographed, or Evans’ photographs of the dust bowl and all, which even then was on the path into history, but it’s nice to reminisce about places in much the same way as we do with old family pictures.
Wow. I’ve rambled on for a long time… I must really see something in this book!
Written in the West went through several editions, and can be had for fairly cheap if you look around. Written in the West Revisited, though, shows rather insane prices (probably because of the @filmphotographic coverage). I picked it up for under $40, shipped, and maybe because it was listed incorrectly or something. Anyway. If you want one, look for a 2014 publication. As far as I know, Written in the West wasn’t reprinted that year…
*Wenders, Wim. “I Like Paris in the Winter” in Written in the West Revisited. Translated from the original German and included in an insert. Shirmer/Mosel, Munich, 2015. p. 12. (German original on page 88.)