Andre Wagner

For Viewfinder

Becoming a student of photography.

 
AW_01.jpg

Portrait by Mo Mfinanga

 

Three poignant words—a beautiful struggle—are tattooed on Andre D. Wagner’s arm. And though I was present when they were permanently inked on his arm many years ago, I don’t think he realized how serendipitous those words would become in his journey as an artist and photographer.

Some may be curious about his trajectory, but trust me when I tell you that his relentless perspective is nothing new. No one has ever had to wake him up to go photograph for the day, or tell him how to move in this world. He’s quite literally willed himself into photography, with a natural empathy for humanity and near visceral love for his craft.

I often lay awake at night and wonder what it’s like for people to see a black man documenting this life as we know it. Do they see him as a threat because of the color of his skin, or as a long lost friend because of the kindness in his eyes? The answers seem to only make more questions. But what gives me a peace of mind is that regardless if you’re seeing his work for the first time, or the seventieth, you’ll get that same feeling I always get—an easy silence that makes all of our struggles a little more beautiful.

Lindsay Peoples Wagner

Editor-in-Chief at Teen Vogue
 
 
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Lindsay in New York, 2018
Photos courtesy of Andre Wagner
 
 

By Mo Mfinanga

August 9, 2019

Estimated 22 minute read

Mo: Have you noticed a new rhythm in your work the past year, and is it contributive to the project you're completing right now?

Andre: Yeah, the rhythm these days is just me forcing myself to be in the studio a little bit more. I always say that I have a big appetite for photography. I love making pictures, whether for an assignment or when doing my own work. But there's also work that I must do in the darkroom and studio as well. I've found tricks that help, like using my mornings wisely. But I try to spend time in the darkroom or studio on most rainy days. During the summer, I usually get up around 5:45 a.m. So if I can get back to the crib by 8 or 9 a.m. and I've already worked out, had my coffee, and banged out some emails, then I can process a batch of film and/or photograph for the day. 

Mo: Do you consciously shoot around your studio, or does it not matter where you are in the city?

Andre: It matters because my community is important to me. I’ve been living in the same apartment in Bushwick since 2012 and my studio/darkroom is in my apartment. So naturally I’ve been photographing my neighborhood since then. I know a lot of people on my block, and of course I know all the street vendors near the subway station. When you stand outside all day you end up knowing a lot of people! When most people are out, they are on a mission to get somewhere, whereas my mission is to be present and not in a hurry. 

Andre: When I moved here and started making work, I asked myself, What’s my responsibility to this place—as an artist and as a person? So it’s a blessing that I get to move in a different kind of way. I’m always trying to remind myself of that because I don’t like to sit still since I have a lot of energy. But I’m a creature of habit, especially since I'm out here managing everything and creating on a schedule. So I’m always trying to break the routine of where to go and what I do, but I do love my spots: Canal Street, Union Square, SoHo, Broadway... 34th, 125th, and 149th Street. 

Andre: I think about putting myself in the position to photograph, because there’s a lot of people in these areas. So if I'm shooting in the morning, I want to try to get out early enough where I can photograph people going to school or work. But at the same time, though, it doesn't matter—to your question about where I photograph. I make many kinds of images so my practice is that I make photographs wherever I am. That could be me at the airport, my bedroom window, in an elevator, or at a gas station.

 
I don’t force myself to understand photographs when I’m making them.
— Andre Wagner
 
New York, 2017

New York, 2017

 
 


Mo: Before hitting ‘record’, we talked about how much of a collector you are, so to speak. Mind expanding on that?

Andre: Yeah, the good thing is that I know I'm not just a collector, because realizing the work is very important to me. The print is really important to me and my voice and what I have to say needs to come through—I’m out there photographing a lot. When you're in it and you’re out in the world making the work, there's something so special that happens in that process. Even if you make photographs that emotionally move people, there's something that happens in the field for the creator that is its own special thing. These experiences feed me so if I'm not getting lost in that, then... 

Mo: So what are some of the things that have gotten you through the rainy and sunny days?

Andre: Last year I was in Detroit photographing Aretha Franklin's funeral week. When I was there I ended up running into David Turnley who's a photojournalist and has a twin brother, Peter Turnley. David saw my Leica when I was in this pit full of journalists with long lenses, so he came up and talked to me, and we had a really great interaction. Fast forward to just a few months ago, I'm in Paris with my wife, and on our last morning there we were walking around. I thought I saw David, even though he looked a little different, but I said "David!" And he was like, "Oh, I'm Peter!" He ended up getting my wife and I coffee and we had this really inspiring exchange. 

 
 


Mo: Those interactions help, especially with someone who you respect.

Andre: Exactly! Both of them are legendary photojournalists who are still out here making work. One, it was good for me because I always want to be a student of photography, so it felt good to know who these photographers were when I saw them, because that impacted our exchange. And two, it went from me knowing their work and respecting what they do, to having this beautiful conversation and building a friendship with Peter. Later on, Peter hit me up when he was in New York to have coffee, so having this mutual thing where he might be getting something from me and I'm definitely getting a lot from him [was great]. I haven't been so inspired by talking to another photographer in a very long time. It reminded me to continue to stay open to not only other photographers but people in general. 

Andre: I mean, it’s important to stay a student and recognize these amazing people around us. People are a blessing to one another. Being educated enough to not miss your blessing is so important, especially in this world because everyone jumps from one interest to the next. Like, yo, stay dedicated to something, pay your dues, and see what happens. Since you're true to it, it has to be true to you.

Mo: Conversations are so important. They can encourage, empower, and inspire. Transparency is important, too. I'm not saying let's share all our bags of secrets, but paying it forward helps.

Andre: I hear you, man. It has to be this back-and-forth thing. Everybody can't be like gimme, gimme, gimme.

 
 
New York, 2016

New York, 2016

 
 


Mo: Let's talk about your process of “observing” and the hindsight that allows.

Andre: That part is so amazing and crucial. Photography ages amazingly well and though I’m not concerned about making work for the future. I try to be in tune and focused when I’m working so when I'm in situations I can recognize when things are special. You never know what people might become, where they might go, what's going to change, what's going to stay the same.

Andre: I think hindsight is an important concept to grasp because inevitably you're freezing time. But I guess what’s more important than hindsight is that whenever I pick up my camera I just try and make sure I get it right! Not in the sense of making a perfect picture but in the sense that I didn’t bullshit. That's why I say I don't force myself to understand photographs when I'm making them. I just want to make sure I’m doing it right; that way, everything else is taken care of, inevitably. It’s very easy to become lax with a Leica.

Andre: I can be out in the world, making photographs, walking down different streets and sometimes—I think this is the same for any other observer—you'll get lost in a thought or walking. You'll look at something and initially it'll feel special or just give you some kind of jolt. But then your brain starts working, trying to figure it out. One great aspect of photography is that it can be immediate. You can beat your brain to the punch, so to speak.

Andre: Sometimes I'll be out and about, then boom, that's the picture. I don't need to rely on my brain to catch up with what I felt. It's a woman, there's this pole, the other women is white, now this picture is hinting at the idea of separation—I don't need to understand all of that when I’m photographing. I just need that initial boom. That’s enough for me. Obviously, if the opportunity lends itself, I’ll try and make more photographs but usually the first one is better.

 
Manhattan, New York, 2016

Manhattan, New York, 2016

 


Mo: Has it always felt that way? What were the series of moments where you realized this is now a part of your process?

Andre: That thing doesn't happen all the time. It's just the more often I can get to something similar to that, the better—at least for me. I can't command it, but the more I let go, the more it actually is there. At the end of the day it's all about freedom. If I can beat on the craft enough, know the light well enough, know my settings and calculate that you're sitting three feet away from me—and I can set all of that on my camera without even looking—then I can be faster than any autofocus system. There's so much freedom in the understanding of the craft. I think jazz music has that element. People think a lot about the improvisation of jazz, right? But you can't improvise unless you're a master of your instrument. 

Andre: Again, photography has that element where you can jump the gun on things. Timing is everything. If you get it right you’ll have that picture to look at forever. That's why I love working with film cameras, because I don't have a screen that forces make me to try and understand pictures when I’m actually trying to make the pictures. When I’m in the studio or darkroom looking at the pictures, that’s when my brain is critiquing photographs; that’s when I edit. Life isn't the photograph. Life is where you want to be.

 
 

The Process

 
 

Mo: It seems like you're very comfortable with your tools, but is there anything in your process you're still trying to figure out?

Andre: I think the other element for the way I practice photography is getting the actual photographs and the editing, some of what we were speaking of earlier. I'm trying to make photographs about my community and neighborhood, the black experience, and what's going on today. I'm also trying to make images of other things that I meditate on. Sometimes I don't know what that looks like until I see it. I have an image in my subway book, Here For The Ride, where a black family is shown having a somber look and sitting next to them are two white kids with this very joyful energy. I only recognized that scene because of my personal experience on earth. When I saw that I felt that. 

Andre: I'm thinking about what my position is in the world and the experiences that I’ve been through. But I'm not walking around the streets looking for an image that screams racism or that has the content of race. It's part of absorbing the world and using what presents itself or, I guess, maybe what’s hidden in the flux of time. I’m stuck with myself so I know that my pictures will come. If I set out looking for certain images I’ll be blinding myself of the discovery to be had. 

 
All the best things about photography are found in the process of making the work.
— Andre Wagner
Here For The Ride     ,  Andre Wagner’s first monograph, published in 2017

Here For The Ride, Andre Wagner’s first monograph, published in 2017

 


Andre: The point that I'm getting at is I need to finish this project. I want to speak and express myself through photographs without my voice getting lost. It's not about being on the street or making certain kinds of images. It's just about going out into the world and having this respect for photography in making interesting and clear images, and to respect myself in doing something true to me.

Mo: And, I mean, what city in America encourages that as much as New York!

Andre: Right? I'm trying to finish this project I'm working on but I'm itching to do more traveling and get more out of New York.

Mo: What are some places that are on your radar?

Andre: Right now, there's so many places in the country that I haven't been and there are places I’ve been but not to photograph. Like, what does Andre look like photographing in Texas or LA? What does it look like in my hometown Omaha, Nebraska?

Mo: Have you done any work back home?

Andre: I haven't even spent much time there since I left for college in 2005, so there's a lot of stuff I want to tap into. That's why I'm feeling like I'm in a good place to land the plane on this long term project I've been working on in NY, so I can make room to work on other stuff.

Mo: One of the most challenging things to ask oneself is, What do I create next? It's nice to have possible projects queued.

Andre: Yup, that’s why I like photographing the way I do. It seems like one idea or image can lead to the next. In reflecting on images I can realize it’s this or that, and the lightbulb goes off.

Mo: We can only think so presently. I feel like having a nuanced intention towards future work allows the universe to aid you. Do you feel like that's something you think of?

Andre: I mean yes and no. I've told this story before, when I was in college basketball. I thought I was a very serious athlete; I wanted to play in the NBA and felt like it was attainable. Everybody encouraged it because I was pretty good, but the problem was being in Omaha, Nebraska playing basketball. It’s not necessarily a place that's going to challenge you against what talent looks like across the country. Eventually I went to college in Iowa to play but I should've been trying to play Division I. Why am I playing Division III?

Andre: So I got to the D League tryouts and I knew immediately I wasn't going to get a call back; it was the biggest lesson in the world. When I fell into photography that's where all these decisions of me doing it on my own terms came into play, because basketball was my first love and it didn’t work out the way I wanted. I got crushed. At first, when I got into photography I didn't take it seriously, but as time went on I started to realize it was the next form I would use to express myself.

Andre: By the time I realized that photography was my second chance, I was more or less operating from survival. Okay, I'm black, I'm a photographer, and I don't have a lot of money, but all of this is new and there's a whole history of this thing, so study where people went and what they did. How did they get there? What and where is their archive? Who made the prints and who did the editing? So it's understanding how to be part of that tradition, but not necessarily thinking about legacy.

Andre: I thought I already knew what legacy and greatness was but then I got trampled at this tryout. I was like, Fuck. This is not working! [both laughing] But now I have the understanding and not ignorance. If you want to be on the other end of it, you really need to go and check that out, and not think you've checked it out because you've seen it on TV. I wasn't at NBA games or practices. I wasn't around elite athletes. So why the hell did I think I could compete with them? It was all out of ignorance. At the tryout I recognized that I could do it, but I needed some time to catch up. I say that because I've always had this undeniable doubt that I can do whatever the fuck I want to. [laughing]

Mo: I believe if that's authentic people will feel that. It's an unspoken energy.

Andre: In the whole process, I just want to keep working and making photographs. All the best things about photography are found in the process of making the work. It's not in the accolades; it's not in somebody's school; it's not in some client or on Instagram. It's in going out there and being in it. Being uncomfortable. A lot of people don't want to do things where they're uncomfortable.

Mo: Was there anyone in your family that indicated you could pursue life that way?

Andre: My parents are great so I think yes. I'm the first member in my family to go to college to get a degree. I think in that process of feeling like you're lucky to get out of high school, go to college to play a sport, and have these first experiences, was great. I was the first one to get a passport and get out of the country. They never shot anything down but in the newness of doing all these things you realize how special it is, because my dad was working hard as fuck for me to do this.

Andre: He wasn’t necessarily working hard for me to be a photographer. None of us saw that coming, but he was working hard as hell to give me the opportunity and space to try things or at least get to college—both of my parents. So they have been a blessing, really. It's not necessarily about needing somebody to tell you to be it, but once you start to get enough of these clues you start to get curious enough to continue that path.

 
 
New York, 2014

New York, 2014

 
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New York, 2017

New York, 2017

 


Mo: Glenn O'Brien once said, "The internet has made the individual powerful." I think about that whenever I hear someone like you talk about fostering your curiosity. The internet is a powerful place.

Andre: It is, especially for people of color. 

Mo: I just hope companies and publications aren't exploiting those who have now realized what's possible. I talked to Bon Duke about this. A company talked to him about how he fits their profile and he said he should've stopped the conversation there.

Andre: That's the thing. At the end of the day there's still so much internal change that needs to be happening in so many places. How do you go from things being a trend to an actual change?

Mo: You can encourage that, but you can't do that through one person.

Andre: Or one era, or one campaign, like Obama said. [both laughing]

Mo: But it's happening one way or another through the example of us black artists. Here's an easy example: Micaiah Carter. The opportunities that he's carved… It’s crazy. The guy is a genuine and hard working soul. I want him to win. 

Andre: Right? His work is amazing. I want him to win, too!

 
What I’m trying to do is be as honest as possible.
— Andre Wagner
 

Mo: What is something in your work that you feel, consciously or not, trying to encourage in yourself or others?

Andre: That's a really good question. It's something I haven't thought about, but I think I have the perfect answer. [laughing] I guess I'm going to have to give you the Kawhi Leonard answer. In reference to encouraging others, you're going to have to ask the people how they’ve been encouraged. [both laughing] I can't answer that question for you! 

Andre: But that's the other thing, too, man. Basketball has been such a theme of what I'm referencing because of my history. That has informed so much of how I approach art and photography. Coming from this rigorous athletic background and landing on art... It can be athletic, and in part, for me it is. There's no doubt basketball influenced me landing on the streets photographing, and that's something I'm interested in talking about more. The more I share about it, people have come forward to tell me that they're happy to hear this experience because everyone doesn't go to Yale to learn how to become a photographer or be part of the art world.

Andre: It doesn't mean that because I didn't go to Yale that I’m not committed or that I’m ignorant to the history of my medium. My experiences in sport have shown me what dedication and working looks like. That's also where the bravado comes from, because like any sport, if you're on the court you have to carry that a little bit. Even with Kawhi, he's a smart and funny guy, and when he's on the court he's not the most boastful player, but the way he moves—he doesn't think anybody is better than him. I carry myself like that but in a way that works with a new medium.

Mo: That's something I've thought about at times. Maybe this a projection but do you ever worry about that spilling out?

Andre: I don't think it's something to worry about if your heart is right. It's truly a blessing to be a photographer. I feel like I've been given a gift and if others want to receive I’m happy to give. I'm a spiritual person so as long I feel like my heart is right and I’m trying to add to, then I don't worry about it. There's so much [other] shit to be worried about.

Mo: What worries you?

Andre: Money! Trying to make sure I can pay rent and buy film; trying to make sure I can do well for a client; making my wife happy. I'm naturally not a worrier. I have this very go-with-the-wind attitude. My wife is very different from me in that sense; I think that's why we work so well together. Whereas she might be strict, I'm helping her loosen up. And when I'm too loose, she helps me tighten up. I definitely worry about things, but there's also a conviction that I walk with. I just let it go.

Mo: What do you feel like is the purpose of your work?

Andre: There's so much to it. What I'm trying to do is be as honest as possible. At least when I'm out there, I want to be honest. It's a task, for me, being out here making photographs on the streets or wherever as a black man carrying a camera. Sometimes the camera is in my hand by my side and I catch people looking at me weird, like it might be a gun or something. That might sound far fetched but when you’re in this skin you know for a fact that it’s not. 

Andre: Sometimes I wish my practice happened privately in my studio but that’s not the case. In the beginning, I had a hard time photographing on the streets, and was trying to do research and find other black photographers who’ve done it. I was just trying to find some insight and something to hold on to that felt like mine. Eventually I did—the digging was serious. But if you do research, a lot of popular and critically acclaimed photography have overlooked black artists. 

Andre: I knew I wanted to be part of this tradition, but quickly realized I'm different than most celebrated photographers. The black photographers who have been around for forever aren't that well documented. All of those interviews and conversations that I personally needed... I just had to go out there and figure it out. Like, is it okay for me to walk around Manhattan and make photographs, as a black man? That might sound silly to other photographers and people but when you're in this skin—and when I was getting started—it's a legitimate fucking question.

 
 

Andre: Do I have to stay in my neighborhood or can I go out there too? It's crazy to think I’ve been grappling with that question ever since I was a kid, but I'm glad I have the tools now.

 
Manhattan, New York, 2017

Manhattan, New York, 2017

 

Further Reading

  • Kathy Ryan
  • “The photography that stays around is the photography that gets people in the heart.”