Meet Photographic Artist Andre Wagner
Andre Wagner – @photodre – is a Brooklyn-based photographer who specializes in black and white film photography. Although he doesn’t consider himself a street photographer or a documentarian, his work is focused on capturing America honestly and emotionally.
Interviewer Mark Gelband (@markgelband) is Ello’s Chief Marketing Officer, an expert in container home construction, a long-time writer, and a local everywhere he goes.
Mark: So much of what you do is loosely put in the genre of "street photography." Do you feel as though that label accurately depicts the genre in which you work? What would you call the genre?
Andre: I know why people use the term “street photography,” but it’s not what I do. If anything, I pull from the documentary aesthetic but I’m not a documentary photographer either, nor am I motivated to document. What I’m interested in and what pushes me forward is my desire to create something new, and to deal with photographs. For me it’s always about the photograph. So no matter what idea I may have in my head, or what I think a body of work should be about, none of it means anything if there’s no exchange between the viewer and the photo. If the photograph lays flat, then it doesn’t work. So in that sense, I consider myself a photographer or a photographic artist.
I really don’t understand what else there is. I’ll give you an example: Richard Alvedon made an amazing photograph of Marilyn Monroe. There’s an emotional intensity that almost any viewer will feel when looking at it, you don’t even have to know that the subject is a celebrity. The photograph is so good it surpasses being a good “portrait” – it’s a great photograph by any standard. Same with this photograph from Garry Winograd, or this photograph by Louis Draper. These aren't good “street” photos, they are great photographs by any standard. My point is, any first rate work surpasses the labels. So personally, that’s my goal and that’s what I’m up against. To make photographs that are new, fresh, and that can hold their own.
Mark: I led off there because there's a depth in the scenes you capture that seem to make a larger statement about humanity and what we see in ourselves when we look at images that might not be our personal experience. Is there a larger social statement you want to share with your viewer?
Andre: Well I am an African American photographer and this is America. I feel as though I’ve been blessed with a talent and I have to use it for something that’s bigger than me. Part of what I hope my work can do is be a counterbalance to injustices perpetrated in the realm of representation. With my photographs I aim to highlight the nuance of people simply goin’ about their business. As an insider to my community it’s a responsibility that I have, and I don’t take that lightly. At the same time, when I’m out photographing every day I’m not thinking about any of this. I just let my mind go free and am present in the moments that I encounter. When I’m out doing the work that’s when I’m at my best.
Mark: One image that still impacts me was captured in Bushwick – the main subject looks so tightly wound, intense like impending rage. The three people behind seem to feel the energy. You seem so close. Can you talk about that shot? Did you fear taking it?
Andre: No fear. When I’m working I operate as if it’s my right, and I have conviction that I’m doing what I should be doing. It makes people more comfortable that way, we all can smell fear.
Mark: Black and white? Film? Why?
Andre: Robert Frank once said black and white are the colors of photography, because they represent hope and despair. I have to agree with that. I also just love the full tone of greyscale. At this point I pretty much see the world as such. When I took my first photographs they were on film, so it’s how I started and now it’s what I know. I have my own darkroom in my apartment so I develop and print all my work as well. It’s my art and I like to have control of it all. I would hurt someone if my film wasn’t developed properly.
Mark: Do you find value in processing? What is it? Why?
Andre: There’s so much value in the process; for me it’s a way of living and operating in the world. I photograph, develop film, make contact sheets, archive, scan, print, edit and sequence work. All of it has a role in helping me understand what I’m doing. I live with the work, hang it on my studio walls, make photo books out of binders. I’m giving photography my best shot. It’s fun but it’s also serious work.
Mark: When you leave NYC and photograph other places/other people, do you feel a new sense of adventure or are their deeper comparisons to your sense of rootedness in the city?
Andre: I do feel like I’m on an adventure when I leave NY, but most days I feel like I’m on an adventure by simply walking out of my apartment. For me that’s been key. I walk outside everyday and try hard to clear my head of any preconceptions. If I do that then everything will be new. I do operate differently in different spaces, but I don’t think about it too much. It’s just something that you feel in your soul, and that’s what I use as a guide.