Ten thousand Polaroids, three thousand found, two hundred exhibited: Wim Wenders at The Photographers' Gallery

A Polaroid print of a pair of blue glasses being held in front of a cityscape, Sydney.

How many images does it take to know a person? There's a sense that through just a single image we can see what a photographer was thinking and feeling in the moment of its creation. Between the 1960s and 1980s German filmmaker Wim Wenders produced, by his own estimate, over ten thousand Polaroids while scouting for locations across the US, Germany, and Australia. He talks of having simply forgotten about this collection, a part of which was only recently rediscovered when three thousand were found in several storage boxes. Two hundred of these are now being exhibited in Instant Stories. Wim Wenders' Polaroids at The Photographers Gallery, London. As with any show named after an artist there's a temptation to view the work on display as autobiographical, certainly that's the way some people see it. But despite being able to draw on an entire archive, can we ever know a person through an image?

The Polaroid holds a particular significance for Wenders, in his writing it bears a unique relation to history, different from any other type of photograph. In a sense this is true: unlike photographic prints Polaroids are unique; they cannot be replicated from a negative; they develop instantaneously; the time between action and image is reduced to as little as possible; they emerge in the moment. The Polaroid was popularised through its association with intimacy, the barely concealed temptation of being able to take and develop private photographs in your own home, without the intercession of lab technicians or other lovers. Photographs that in their uniqueness could be kept private, locked in drawers. Wenders often refers to the prints as image-objects, emphasising the sense of touch and possession. He describes warming the developing images with his own body heat, keeping them pressed in his armpit. He conceives of photographs as holding a direct and personal relationship to their subjects. You can read in his words a sense of the Polaroid as exhibiting qualities of an ideal photography,

This 'real and singular thing', a little square picture in its own frame. Not a copy, not a print, not a multiple, not repeatable. You couldn't help feeling that you had stolen this image-object from the world. You has transferred a piece of the past into the present.

What do we see in these fragments of history from which we try to construct an identity? There are a few photographs of Wenders, in each he seems to be wearing the same striped trousers, patterned shirts and braces. More often the pictures show landscapes laid before the camera or focus on objects held close to its lens. The first image in the exhibition is one that blurs the distinction of traditional genres of portraiture, still life, and landscape; a pair of translucent blue glasses are held out in front of a grey, out-of-focus cityscape, punctuated by a tall tower—the Sydney tower—caught through the lenses the buildings almost fall into focus, the pair of lenses describe a face.

Despite the focus on the instant and the moment there are few images that, taken together, could form a narrative or describe a set of events. The closest I found was a set of four photos featuring the same girl, first in a car, then in a diner. Rather, the more you look the more disparate the images are in style and content: Geysers and waterfalls. Ice cream. Cherries. Elvis on TV. A single road through fields. A crazy golf course at dusk. Holiday Inn sign. A wide river. A self portrait. A typewriter. An American city at night. A shadow play. A cowboy hat. Empty streets. Cigarettes. A dog. Clouds. A desert. Streets. Mirror. Table. Campbell soup tins. a young girl. A diner. A crane.

The curators have gone to lengths to remove the images from their context; there are no wall texts, no explanatory notes, there are no captions, no names, and only a few series are given titles, and even then the titles are singular, unable to capture the breadth of subjects in the series. In the absence of context the images lack that which makes them a record of an event, there is little we can say of them. This lack of context might be expected given that the prints were only recently rediscovered, but in at least one case it's clear that a caption written on the print has been deliberately obscured to maintain the pretence of mystery. Throughout the entire exhibition only a single date is given in the title of a series, 8 December 1980, I later find it's the date shared by the murder of John Lennon, I presume the photos in the series show the crowds around The Dakota apartment block where he lived and died, but there's nothing to confirm this.

It's important to consider that some of these Polaroids were made not by Wenders, but by his characters—a whole set are by the actor Dennis Hopper, who takes a series of self-portraits in the film, The American Friend (1977). Even when Wenders was taking the images himself, he was taking these as part of his role as a location scout for films such as Alice in the Cities (1974). Here the image's function was to select and mark a place, but in the act of documenting the location Wenders was already fictionalising the image, dissociating it from local memory and preparing it for the cinema. Can these images be said to be autobiographical or the work of a photographer, or are they the creation of the scriptwriter, the director, or the producer? That is, everyone else involved in the making of the film. At times Wenders rejects the idea that he owns the images he makes; he talks of giving away his photographs to their subjects, as though they 'owned' the image more than himself.

For all the talk of singularity and instances of history, the images lack context and are multiple, divided between subjects. These disparate subjects are defined more by their difference than their similarity, any identity that is described by these images must be similarly diffuse—or rather, while it's possible to see these as multiple aspects of one person, it's also possible to think of these as irreducible to a single person. No single image can tell us what Wenders is, and Wenders is not the single subject of images. There is a void at the centre of the exhibition that these images orbit—the real and singular thing is a fantasy. The exhibition says less of a single point of origin, Wenders' personal life, than of what we today desire to see in the artist. If, when, more images are found, the exhibition is moved, the other several thousand prints recovered, the choices of the curators change, it will tell a different story, but one no less true or false to who Wim Wenders is.