Wim Wenders inaugurated a photo exhibition called “Images of Planet Earth” in the Scuderie del Quirinale (Quirinal Stables) in Rome, 2006.
The great director is walking through the enormous spaces of the Quirinale, putting the final touches on the exhibition and deciding where to put the photos, including the largest ones, he’s taken around the world.
Wenders, who is in a great mood, sits down in a director’s chair in the middle of one of the rooms and asks me to sit with him.
When did you discover that you were a photographer?
I always wanted to be a painter, and I learned more from painters than photographers. When I started making films, I conceived them as an extension of paintings. One of my role models, for example, was Andy Warhol who had started making films as well. I wanted to be a painter, and I thought making films was a step along that path. But then I became a storyteller, and in the mid-nineteen-eighties, I began to take photographs. For me, my photographs are like painting.
When are you going to pick up the paintbrushes again?
I still do many watercolours. I haven’t done an oil on canvas in thirty years, but I travel with watercolours. But I’m too busy to be a painter because a painter can only be a painter.
So why aren’t you only a painter?
Because I want too many things.
I want to tell stories, to be an architect, a musician and a painter. But I use photography as a means for this.
What kind of camera do you use?
For all of my photographs and large panoramic shots, I use a Fuji 6×17. So the negative is really big. For 6×7 shots, I use a camera called Makina. It’s a Japanese model and Italians always think I’m joking when I talk about it. Actually it was an Austrian brand originally from the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties, and when the company went out of business, the Japanese bought it.
How many photos do you take before choosing one?
For the exhibition at the Scuderie, which has sixty images, I got out twenty thousand negatives. Actually, this is the first time I’ve done such a complete show.
Are your works for sale?
Yes. I have a gallery in London called Haunch of Venison, and I have six copies of each image. Some have already been sold. In Rome, I’m showing my personal photographs, which have never been put up for sale. This is the last time I’m showing them. I showed twenty-four of them for the first time in Berlin in 2001 and another twenty-six at the Guggenheim Bilbao, and then China, Australia, and New Zealand.
There are no portraits in your photographs. Only landscapes.
Yes. But there are people here and there that are part of the landscape. Many of my photographs show traces of people or people left behind.
Did you watch the World Cup?
Yes. Actually, Gianluigi Buffon could be a character in my next film. He seems like a “divo” but then he’s a man with a secret.
What kind of secret?
This could be the plot of the film…
You left Los Angeles to return to Berlin. Why?
I lived in the United States for about ten years, but I always kept my German passport. I shot seven or eight films in Los Angeles, in the United States, but now I want to shoot one in German with German actors. The last time I worked in Germany was 1992. I have to say that I left the United States for political reasons as well because I wasn’t happy.
And how was your return to Germany?
When I left Germany in 1995, I left because it was an unhappy country. Germans hadn’t dealt with the reunification well. Now Germany has a different spirit. After twenty years, it is starting to think like a unified country.
Did the sadness go away?
You can’t really say it’s a happy place.
The new pope Benedict XVI is German. What does that mean for Germany?
In Germany we knew he was very conservative, but his election was certainly very exciting. At the same time, there are some worries about his very conservative policies. So there are some people who would have preferred a more progressive pope even if he weren’t German.
But Germany is the country of philosophy and theology, and this pope is a great intellectual.
Yes, absolutely. He wrote many important theological books. He is an intellectual but a conservative one.
What kind of intellectual are you?
I am Christian, but very liberal. I’m a liberal Christian if this can be considered a category. A Christian on the left.
Aside from the landscapes shown in these works, what other themes interest you most today?
I am always more interested in politics, but on a more global rather than local level. I am very interested in the problems of globalisation. The growing inequality between developed countries and poor countries affects me deeply. That gap is enormous and growing ever more. And, unfortunately, politicians are allowing this to happen.
Are you scared of the atomic bomb?
As a child – I was born in 1945 – everyone was afraid of the bomb, but today everyone is afraid of terrorism. I believe that today’s atomic bomb is the disparity between rich and poor.
What about Islam?
In and of itself, Islam is a peaceful religion. Actually, the damage done in the name of Christianity is incalculable. The Islamic religion doesn’t teach hate. It is because there is so much poverty in this world that fundamentalists can become terrorists.
Are you justifying terrorism?
No, but combatting terrorism without combatting its causes is wrong. The cause is the growing gap between rich and poor.
What is the artist’s role?
Making people understand their fellow man. My exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale is called “Images From Planet Earth,” but my hope is that the visitor understands that the earth belongs to all of us in the same way.
I sense that there is something you want to add.
Yes. The Australian aboriginals that live in the desert where I shot many photographs are people of extraordinary beliefs. They believe that they belong to the earth and not that the earth belongs to them. I have spent a lot of time in Australia, and this was very important to me.
Then I went to Cuba, Japan, Israel, and the United States. We live in a world of images.
Do words still count?
Yes. Words count even more, because images are out of control and we can control them even less.
Would you like to be a poet?
I write a lot, and I published the book “Once”. It was a travel diary along with text, a bit like a series of poems.
Wim Wenders MoMA Retrospective