Experience the streets of New York with Andre Wagner
A city can be hard to love. At times it may even seem maddeningly distant. As the sights go by, some streets will melt into others, as faces do in a crowd. Love spread too thin barely loves at all. When hoping to confront this largeness of presence, an artist often hunts for the stories and lives that form a city’s spirit, the material that shapes its core.
Andre Wagner, a portrait and street photographer based in New York, is one such artist. Eschewing a panoramic view of New York, one that collapses its dizzying heights into a plane of frenetic movement, Wagner instead looks for the sparks of feeling tucked within a gaze. He looks for moments that sing above the rush.
While he doesn’t consider himself creative, saying that the photographs he captures are “far more creative than I ever could be,” he has an undeniable eye for foreseeing where life will pop up. And that foresight, the anticipating of what will be before it’s there, requires him to go near and observe up close. He creates, preferably in film, his own special prints of the world, giving face to all that has moved him.
Wagner’s first solo exhibition, open to July 5th, is on view at the Papillion, Los Angeles. I spoke to Andre Wagner over email about his work.
Do photographers capture a moment of the world or create one? Is a photo something that they’ve read from reality or something that they’ve written in? Something else? What do you think?
I often tell people that I’m not creative, and I truly believe that, so I definitely don’t create moments. The images that I capture of the world are far more creative than I could ever be. I quite like it that way. I love being a student of the world, of life. As for pictures, I think they are something totally different than reality. Once you put a frame around a slice of the world, you change that reality completely. So if you are looking at photographs in this way, you’re really just engaging with the quality of the content that is provided in a frame.
What would you say you’re bringing into the world with your photography? How would you describe your work?
That’s a loaded question. I’m bringing all of me. I mean, maybe I’m not at that point yet, but that’s the goal. I’m the most pure Andre Wagner when I’m photographing. If that makes sense. I’m attempting to photograph everything that I’m interested in, and in return it teaches me more about myself. So maybe it’s more about what photography is bringing to me. It’s always weird when I meet people and they ask me what I shoot. I just say life, because that’s what it is. I’m not sure how else to describe it. Academically, I could put a bunch of words together, but, at the end of the day, it’s all distractions. It’s described by viewing the images.
To take a question from one of my favorite writers: does shooting photography help make the anguish of life more bearable? How did you get your start in photography?
Photography has definitely saved me. Because of it, I enjoy life, so I don’t spend time thinking about the suffering of life. I’m just genuinely happy about each day that I get to photograph. I got introduced to photography with a college course in undergrad, back 2007. I thought it was going to be an easy credit, and I didn’t care for it at the time, but then I purchased my first camera in 2010. That was really the start of it.
I read that you arrived in New York City with $70 to your name. How did you survive? Did the thought that photography might be a burden ever pop into your mind?
I survived off dollar pizza! A lot of people have their moving to New York story, and I definitely have mine. I did a year of graduate school, and that was how I was able to move to the city. I never thought about photography as a burden, but anything that would prevent me from photography is the actual burden.
Did you ever feel like giving up? Were you ever unsure of your talents?
I’m sure I had those thoughts in the beginning. It was all so new. But knowing what I know now I would never feel like giving up. There would be no point of me being here. But that doesn’t mean this path is always easy. I definitely started off unsure about my talents, but I was just young and dumb. Once I broke away from all the comparisons, goals, and standards of others, I found there is no reason to think like that. I work very hard at what I do, so I’m doing whatever I’m capable of. There’s no reason to be unsure about that.
What about street photography do you enjoy the most? Who was your first street photography influence?
The term street photography is a weird one. I photograph in bodegas, grocery stores, homes, coffee shops, subways, buses, and yes on the street. I just feel like that term doesn’t really tell you much about a photographer or his or her work. I photograph wherever I am. That’s what I enjoy most. Gordon Parks was my first major influence; his images made me feel a certain way. I never knew that was possible. But then I found out about other great photographers like Robert Frank, Roy DeCerava, Eli Reed, Leon Levienstein, Bresson, Saul Leiter, Carrie Mae Weems, Helen Levitt.
I read that you recently met Robert Frank. How did that go? What did you learn from him?
Robert Frank was having a show opening in the city, and I had no idea about it. A good friend of mine who works at K&M Camera on Broadway texted me and informed me about the show. My first question to her was, is Robert going to be there? The owner of K&M happens to be best friends with Robert, so she knew that he would show up. I had a dinner to be at this same night, and the whole day I was thinking about how I could get out of it. I knew that this was the one day that I could meet one of my favorite photographers. I’m always the guy that never shows up to events, so I felt that I had to be at this dinner since I already confirmed. I went to the dinner and found out that the event didn’t really start until an hour after I was already there. There was free drinks so I had a couple glasses of whisky and then realized that I was missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime. I left the venue and went uptown as fast as possible. When I arrived at Pace (the gallery) I got into the elevator and headed to the 10th floor. There was a guy in the elevator talking about how Robert was there and being pretty nice about talking to people. As soon as I got to the 10th floor it was like a path opened up just for me to meet him. It was amazing. He was the second person I talked to after I walked in. I first spoke to a friend of mine who was standing at the door. Later in the evening, Robert was sitting down and that’s when I decided to make a portrait of him. We didn’t exchange many words, I didn’t have much to say. I’m learning as much as I can through his life’s work, what else can you ask of the man? I personally don’t think I learn much from teachers. I learn from studying great work. That portrait that I took of him taught me a lot. You see, he’s looking right at me, I photographed him with a 28mm, so I’m very close, and his hands and camera are in a complete blur. It’s a reminder to keep going, never stop. Here he is 90 years old and still working at it. It was great to be in his presence.
How much thought do you put into matching a background environment to the person in a portrait? It seems you’re very sensitive to matching personality with location. For example, in this one, what compelled you to shoot outside? What about her sent you there?
To be honest, this portrait was for a friend’s clothing line. The old green house fit aesthetically with her handmade garments. We also loved that this location was not in the city. We had to travel to get there. Lately, my portraits tend to be of my friends. So if I make a photograph that I really enjoy it’s usually very natural and happened when we were hanging out. In the past, I would set out to make portraits, and it would be a planned event, but I’m not really working that way these days. Even if I know I want to photograph someone, I’m just trying to hang out with them. I don’t want it to be a photo shoot.
I read that you have to really connect with someone to capture their portrait. When that connection doesn’t happen, what do you think causes it? How do you know when a connection failed to ignite?
It’s tough when you put a camera in front of people’s faces. It can be nerve-recking. Different people are looking for different aspects from portraits. The mirror is the biggest lie of all. For me, I want to convey something. I don’t want it to sit flat. So I’m usually searching for the one moment when the sitter or my friend may have forgotten about me. This is very hard for me and I’m still working out my ways.
What have you learned about yourself from shooting photography? Any surprises?
All of it is a surprise. I didn’t grow up with art or expression through creating. I’ve learned that my mind and being human can be a wonderful thing.
All images © Andre Wagner