Christopher Anderson

For Viewfinder

Using photography as a uniform for discovery.

 
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Chris and I have worked together for about 20 years, starting from when I was the deputy photo editor at The New York Times Magazine, to New York Magazine where I have been the director of photography since 2004. In the late '90s he shot mostly reportage, in conflict zones. While he was bearing witness to conflict and struggle, his images spoke less to the conflict itself and more to the experience of living through it. The image that struck me the most in that era was of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan photographed through the windshield of a car. It reminded me of the crucifixion of Jesus, and that was the moment I realized Chris was seeing things differently from other photojournalists.

The relationship between a photographer, a photo editor, and editor is a very special one. There is so much that happens in between the initial proposal for a story and what eventually gets published. And it is all of the in-between that differentiates how one photographer’s voice is translated from one client to another.

In 2012, Chris became our first ever photographer in residence, a position created specially for him. He was eager to experiment with assignments outside the boundaries of reportage, and the magazine was simultaneously experimenting with its photographic voice, so we were both excited to collaborate. The unique synergy of our partnership has always been rooted in Chris's unusual eye and our own gravitation to the less expected, the more revelatory, the left of center.

This partnership yielded some of the most memorable portraits. Some made with access, and many with barely any access at all. From Pharrell at the height of his fame, to Spike Lee, to Mayor Michael Bloomberg nearing the end of his term as Mayor of New York City, which became our cover. The Bloomberg cover portrait is a great example of the synergy between us, as it is an unconventional portrait that Chris purposefully framed, omitting most of his face, and instead focused on his hand pensively resting on his mouth with his elegant cuff, so that it was all about gesture. He managed to convey Bloomberg without ever meeting his eyes. We published this on our cover, lowering our logo to accommodate the image, and resulted in one of the most iconic covers in my fifteen year history at New York.

Jody Quon

Director of Photography at New York Magazine
 
 
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Photos courtesy of Christopher Anderson
 
 

By Mo Mfinanga

August 24, 2019

Estimated 19 minute read

Mo: Congrats on the move to France. What influenced that decision?

Christopher: Thanks. French wife and french kids, so it's just family reasons. We realized we wanted to have the kids in public school in Paris and feel their Frenchness. [laughing]

Mo: I'd love to hear about anything that surprised you while you lived in Barcelona.

Christopher: Being there for three years, I think what I'm most surprised by is that great weather is not everything which is a very LA type of discovery.

Mo: What ideas and perspectives did Barcelona introduce you to that weren't previously discovered in New York, if any?

Christopher: I don't know and maybe that's why I'm leaving. I don't feel a sense of discovery here.

Mo: Do you feel like France might be more stimulating other than what it will bring to your family?

Christopher: I make a lot of my work in France. I've lived there before and I have a connection there through my family and now have a French passport myself. I'm naturalized as a French citizen, too.

Mo: Is there a common theme found in the cities you’ve lived in?

Christopher: Paris is much more like New York than Barcelona is. It's a bigger city and is a cultural capital. It's one of the nodes of the world so in that sense it feels much more like New York. Barcelona is a little bit more of a tourist destination, so I guess in that sense, for me, it's a more of a relevant city.

 

 
 

Approximate Joy

Published in 2018 by STANLEY/BARKER, Approximate Joy is Christopher Anderson's study of the melancholy faces of young émigrés pursuing their dreams in one of the world’s largest cities

Learn more here

 
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Mo: I'd love to know how this year has felt so far compared to other years.

Christopher: I would kind of put 2018 and 2019—in my mind—together in one pot because certain things are happening within them. In 2018 I had a book, Approximate Joy, that came out and I almost immediately went into working on COP which has just come out. Now I'm doing a book launch and talk for COP. 2018 and 2019 feel like a set in a good way.

Christopher: These two books feel a lot like a culmination of directions where work has been bubbling towards for several years. It also feels like they've given me new wind in my sails, having moved from New York and that having been a bit traumatic to move from New York to Barcelona. Even though Barcelona has been a great place to be, we miss our community in New York and our friends. It felt like we were closing a chapter of life. So right now it feels like the beginning of something rather than where I was in 2017.

Mo: How do you stay connected with that community and your contemporaries? 

Christopher: It's been hard. I'm fortunate enough that I still work a lot in New York so I'm traveling there and being able to physically see my community now and then. But my community in New York has also changed and moved away from New York as well. But within the creative community, when I'm doing advertising work my team is a part of my community. I was just in Arles where I got to see several of my creative community from even back my "war photographer" days. It was like catching up with family. In a way, my creative community is a traveling circus so you catch up with them in different scenarios and places around the globe.

Mo: Regarding the photo community, what excites or concerns you in it?

Christopher: Oh, man. That's a big question! You really have to zoom out for that one. [laughing] First of all, I think there are many different photo communities. Some of them are facing different challenges, shall we say. When I think of the documentary world, that has been gutted and it's been economically challenging to get work done. There's a certain sense of existential crisis of what's the point of making documentary images if there's no place for them to live? With the photo book community, aren't we in the golden age of the photo book? The art world… I don't know how to talk about that... But I think there's a lot of different communities and for me to state something on them, I don't know where to begin with that.

Mo: I could narrow it down to the community you operate in, wherever you feel that is.

Christopher: I feel like I exist in many different photo communities. Like I said, I was just in Arles seeing tons of friends from back in the day where I used to be on contract at magazines and going to places like Afghanistan. I still feel connected to that world. And then there's my Magnum community. Professionally, I have a toe in the fashion and commercial world. The nature of my work has spanned different genres. I feel connected to many different communities and I feel disconnected to all of them at the same time. [laughing] I still haven't figured out what I want to do when I grow up.

 
 
Andrea Diaconu, Paris, France. 2017.

Andrea Diaconu, Paris, France. 2017.

 
I don’t think of a photo book ever as a collection of greatest hits. It’s more about the particular experience.
— Christopher Anderson
 

Mo: Did you have any family members that operated in a creative discipline?

Christopher: My father is a preacher and I think that's a pretty creative discipline. He's a communicator, an orator. There's an art to that, to communicating anything. I would say creativity is part of how my siblings function even in jobs that aren't in creative fields. But still, I grew up in a small town in Texas where art and creativity and these kinds of things were not obvious. There was no visual education of getting to go on weekends to great museums. That wasn't a part of my life the way it's part of my kids life for instance.

Mo: What do your kids gravitate to?

Christopher: My son is totally into the street fashion world. Sneakers is what he's into but also music—the whole sort of streetwear meets fashion meets pop culture. My daughter is into colorful cartoons. I see them taking a phone and trying to make their own little films and take their own photographs. My daughter is very aware of performance.

Mo: What idea do they have of your practice?

Christopher: That's interesting because I'm not really sure. My son is more aware. He's come to set with me sometimes and has seen me work on a commercial job. They watch me make my photographs all the time so I'm making photographs with them. Many people who came to my opening at the Ravestijn Gallery in Amsterdam last November will probably remember my daughter rolling around on feet on the floor more than they will the pictures.

Christopher: There's a book about my son so of course he knows the pictures. I remember the first time he encountered that book in a bookstore and making this connection what my work is and what these pictures are and where they exist in the world. My daughter recently has become aware that there is a book about her brother and wonders why there isn't also a book about her. [both laughing]

Christopher: They're really in tune to their creativity. The picture my son remembers from when he was two-years-old is sitting in Joseph Koudelka's lap, you know? They've grown up around this kind of stuff.

 

 
 

Son

Published in 2013, Christopher Anderson steps away from conflict zones and presents a change of pace in his deeply personal book Son.

Learn more here

 
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Mo: We've touched on this a little bit, but how do you feel about where you exist as a photographer right now and what does that look like?

Christopher: I'd like to think that I'm carving out my own space without that meaning something self important. I have spanned different genres in what I do and even now. I still exist in all these worlds, but there are times where I wonder when I'm long gone, where will I be? What would people remember me as? I guess I'm not as concerned about that as I used to be, maybe. I kind of like the idea that, that position might be a confusing one.

Christopher: Irving Penn, for instance... I'm not comparing myself to him but using him as an example here. Where I place his work in my mind, you can make a whole book out of his still life work, or beauty work, or portrait work, but somehow we don't really try to put him in any of these boxes because we understand it in a way where it's a position he carved out for himself. I would like to think that's a model I would like to imitate. Not that I consciously try to do different genres, it's just that's been the nature of things. As a human being and photographer, it's natural for me to do things in different ways, take on different subject matter, and look at things from different points of view.

Mo: I feel like there's an emotional intimacy threaded through your work.

Christopher: I would hope that, that would be the vibration that would come from all of my work. From my earlier journalistic work to my portraiture, I would like that they'd be connected by that sense of intimacy and a certain emotional intensity. To me, that's the thing I'm always looking for in a picture and it doesn't matter if I'm a picture for a client or myself. It's interesting how people may have come to my work from different avenues. Some people might have been first introduced to my work from the documentary or portrait work, and in their minds I might be that war photographer who now is doing a little bit of this. It can also be quite the opposite where I'm the portrait photographer who used to be a war photographer. [laughing]

Christopher: I'd like to think that the thing that unifies that, no matter the visual languages I'm working in, is the thread of intimacy and emotional intimacy.

Mo: What do you feel has been the foundation within your life to support that? And has it always been the same or have new experiences introduced that?

Christopher: I think it's definitely connected to my family and my upbringing. I grew up in a religious environment and I think I was always searching for meaning. I feel that's always been an engine for my visual search. I know it sounds ridiculous for me to say something so squishy but it really is. I went off to the war because I was searching for something; for some kind of meaning. In my pictures I was looking for that connection. When I stopped going to those places and did the work on my family, it was another search of meaning and connection, and realizing it was right in front of me. I think that still drives my work today. It's just in larger concentric circles outward from my personal experience.

Mo: Do you feel like your children are cognizant of that?

Christopher: I don't know [since] I've never discussed that with them. But my wife is certainly aware of that.

 

 

COP

Published in 2019 by STANLEY/BARKER, COP is the result of Christopher Anderson photographing police in his hometown of New York since 9/11.

Learn more here

 
 
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Mo: You've mentioned before in an interview where you didn't decide to stop being one kind of photographer to become another photographer. Your progression simply is a continuous, natural extension of what you're already doing. Do you see where that natural extension is taking you next?

Christopher: COP, as much as anything, is an embodiment of that journey and evolution because there are pictures in there that started many years ago from the "journalism days" and they span into as recently as this year. The pictures were made for different reasons at different points of time for whatever. Those pictures are made over multiple iterations of this evolution that spans a long time period. For me, when I look at those pictures I see a connection going back to my early work. That's an interesting question because I haven't really thought about that till we talked about it now.

Christopher: You see in many ways the fashion world meeting the portraitist meeting the artist. It's me using the tools and sensibility from my documentary work and using that to treat a much more abstract theme.

Mo: Do you ever worry if you've served the body of work you've finally put together justice, especially in the context of COP?

Christopher: Oh yeah. That's a panic you have every time you put out work of any kind. How do I know when I'm done? Is there a weak point? Is there a hole should I fill? For me, there's practical ways of dealing with that. Like, you give it a deadline. [laughing]

Christopher: I squeezed in a last couple of pictures before we went to press on this book. I have other pictures of cops that might be better photographs as individuals, but they didn't serve a purpose or were in a different key than the music in this book. They didn't fit for one reason or another, and they were about something else. 

Christopher: So this book really is a curation of something that tries to create a certain mood and experience about something. At that point, I'm not looking at a book not as how many good pictures are in there, but as an object put together to communicate something. For whatever the time you take to look into this book—two minutes, five minutes, an hour, whatever—I want that to be an experience the way a film or listening to a song is an experience. I don't think of a photo book ever as a collection of greatest hits. It's more about the particular experience.

 
 
I seek answers just in the way that I live my life... Photography is the uniform I put on while I’m searching.
— Christopher Anderson
Flight over France, 2017.

Flight over France, 2017.

 


Mo: Is photography the only medium you feel comfortable in narrating that intimacy?

Christopher: You should hear me singing in the shower, man. [both laughing] I've been playing around with filmmaking and it's a medium that I enjoy very much. I don't feel like it's a natural extension of photography. It's a different medium altogether. There's some things I understand about it but there's a lot of things I don't yet.

Mo: What are some of the things you notice in it that aren't possible in photography?

Christopher: I don't know if I could talk about it in those terms because it sort of assumes that they're closer to each other than they are. I think that they're in many ways very far apart as mediums. I think a lot of times photographers think because it's visual storytelling and because they're a visual image maker, they should be able to do that very well. Even the visual part of filmmaking is very different than still photography. But then it also needs to work on many different levels that aren't a part of photography—the sound and time, for instance.

Christopher: It's also very different because, unlike photography, which is an extremely solitary medium, you're at the mercy of your team. In many ways, from the actors performance to the editor, makes it a lot less precise, I guess. But to me it's thrilling. That creative collaboration allows for different connections to happen.

Mo: What conversations, if any, do you wish were addressed in photography more?

Christopher: I think dignity. Dignity in the subject of pictures. I guess it does get addressed a lot but it's something I think about a lot in my career. The way we portray people, too. It's a responsibility to photograph someone. It's easy to get caught up in the idea that this subject is here for my picture.

Mo: Inversely, how about topics that need to be addressed less?

Christopher: I really think of photography in the sense of being this thing that we're all collectively participating in. Everybody is doing their own individual thing which happens to result in photographs. I do my thing and I want to do it in a way that has integrity and some sort of honesty or truth about my experience on this planet. I'm really not interested in photography with a capital ‘P’ in the sense of something that's very academic that you set out to test a hypothesis with, and then use the pictures to support your thesis. I'm more interested in the art form that's shouted.

Mo: And more emotional?

Christopher: Exactly. For me, taking a picture is very much a response to something. I am responding to what I see. Even if I am setting something up and controlling the environment, in the end, ultimately, what I photograph is me reacting to something that is in front of me. It's me bringing my presence to that. I like the idea that when you look at my photographs you feel me being there and that's what I'm interested in seeing in someone else's pictures, too. I'm getting the chance to look through their eyes at something and see something that's truly unique because it could only be seen by them. That's where photography gets exciting to me.

Christopher: Good pictures, bad pictures, this technique, that technique, red filter, orange filter—those are the mechanics. I like the idea of looking at a photograph and to forget the fact that a camera is involved.

 
Taliban fighter, Kunduz, Afghanistan. 2001.

Taliban fighter, Kunduz, Afghanistan. 2001.

 


Mo: What has photography yet to answer for you?

Christopher: Right now it's not answering what's next. [laughing] I don't seek answers from photography so I don't expect it to give me that answer.

Mo: Where do you seek answers from?

Christopher: I seek answers just in the way that I live my life. Photography is the uniform I put on while I'm searching.

Mo: What do you feel like the purpose of your work serves either to you or the world?

Christopher: For me, it's part explaining the world to myself and part trying to stop time. Is there a purpose where it serves the world? I'd like to think that some of my pictures serve a historical record in some way, not because they were great moments in history but because they say something about my time on this planet.

 
 

Christopher: I have to believe that record is somehow useful.

 

Further Reading

  • Ashleigh Kane
  • “Sit with the success of a project. Even if it was a failure, sit with that moment, feel it, and appreciate it.”