Disappearing Witness

Photographs by André D. Wagner

“Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a comic book; this whole world is just a comic book and we’re just living in it.” So said documentary photographer Andre D. Wagner the first time he came to The Culture Crush studio. We talked about the world, about New York, and certainly about how his pictures not only told their own individual stories, but about how we might conjure up something more specific by doing a special edit for the magazine. I thought that would be such a nice jumping off point for the entire issue.

Debra Scherer: So let’s talk about that for a little bit. Something about coming to New York, if you want to do documentary photography, this is a pretty good place to do it, right?

Andre D. Wagner: It kind of makes you think about characters and New York is full of characters, and inside all of these characters you can add on social commentary just because of how New York looks, the people that are around, the way that light shines through one block and the next block will be completely dark, you know? Even thinking about the image down at the World Trade Center, this mad rush of people coming out of work, that looks like a scene from a comic book. Like, somebody in there might be a superhero and might just take off!

But New York City definitely has that energy, it takes so much, I just think about me photographing over the summer: it starts early in the day and then the sun goes down and you go to sleep and you wake up and do it all over again. By the end of the summer you’re like, ‘Damn I’m really drained!’ This city just takes so much out of you. I could easily walk like twenty miles a day and not get bored, throughout the whole day. Even though people are at work or going to work or commuting or going to school, there’s always these moments or these in-between things that happen, and to be out there in the mix of that just feels so good because you’re a witness. You’re like, ‘I want some of that! I want that! I want this! I’ll take that!’ You’re just doing it all day.

DS: It’s funny how everybody has their own version of the city, their own experience of it, their own episode, let’s say. Their own reality series is going on in their head and this is a place where it’s the opposite of gated communities, which is really the opposite of what most of America has turned into. Especially in L.A., you just don’t interact with people the way you do in New York, you just don’t. Even in Miami, which is also very multicultural, you’re still not amongst people in the same way that you are here, and mixed with the fact that New York just has people from everywhere on Earth, we talk about this all the time.

André D. Wagner

André D. Wagner

Whether you’re on the Upper East Side or you’re in Tribeca, or Bushwick, or Greenpoint, or Hunts Point up in The Bronx, you walk down the street and you’re going to hear several languages, you’re going to see ten different skin colors, different ages, different socio-economic situations, and it’s part of what the city is. And again, I’m trying not to be political, but there’s really no way I can’t be, because that’s so much of what the city is: all of the little M&M stores and little parks and cute little chairs they put up… you know what? Go ahead and build that stuff because we’re just gonna break that back down. You know what I mean? You think you’ve solved everything and then boom! There are homeless people back on every street again.

ADW: Right, I think the way you’re talking about New York makes me think a lot about my experience when I first moved to the city, I was living on 58th Street, it was around Christmastime, it was the middle of the winter and it was horrible and I was explaining an experience to one of my friends, and it just makes so much sense why I ended up here and became a photographer. It’s because I can show how the city feels, you know?

I was talking about when I was here and in this weird place in my life and I would come out of school, and I’m walking to my apartment and I look through a window and it’s not a little window, it’s a huge window that’s eight feet tall! Then it’s not a little Christmas tree, but the Christmas tree is twelve feet and it has this star that’s the biggest star you’ve ever seen! And you look outside and there’s an SUV that doesn’t have a bunch of little Christmas presents, but the back seat is one giant present that takes up the whole backseat! And then you see a couple walking down the street in mink coats and then there are people having champagne and you look across the park and there’s a homeless guy just sleeping in some crates.

So there’s always this contrast of reality and things that aren’t so true, and being in the mix of that, especially when you’re going through your own things, personally, it affects you. Especially just being able to have photography as an outlet to speak and show how I’m feeling right now, and these are the people who are acting it out for me.

André D. Wagner

André D. Wagner

DS: That’s exactly right. You have been shooting for the past couple of months and I’ve just been like, ‘I want that one, I want that one.’  I could have done a thousand page story.

ADW: I shoot a lot, and I think the thing is sometimes even just having a big batch of images, even if the image isn’t that good or the composition isn’t that great and it isn’t really coming together, I feel like a lot of what I photograph is interesting.

The editing process, as you already know, is always tough because you have to kill the babies, but the things that don’t work, the things you cut out, are also very informative too about the photographer, about the world, what’s happening, because I’m constantly photographing things that interest me on some type of level. So there’s something nice about the editing process because you learn so much that you might not see in the final products, you know?

When I started doing research on photographers that I love, like Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, you know these are classic, iconic photographers, and then you go and look at a book and sometimes you get so discouraged and think, ‘Oh my god, every image is amazing!’ But then you think about it and realize, oh, this photographer photographed for over fifty years and this is his whole life’s work. And sometimes it’s important to think about the longevity of what you’re doing.

This work is important right now because of what’s happening in this world, in America, what’s changing with cell phones and technology, and sometimes being in it as it’s changing, it’s hard to remember. But I’m thinking about when we open this issue fifty years from now, thinking about, this is how New York and the world was changing at this time period, it kind of puts it into perspective. Because who knows what that progression would be like once we look back?

DS: Another thing about Andre’s work that everybody says is, there are so many images that when you look at them – and right now he’s shooting in 2015 – that you don’t really know what year it could have been. Again, we’re looking at these images right now and that one could have easily been taken in the 1950’s and there’s another one that could be in the 1970’s. I think that also has a lot to do with New York. New York is so layered with time periods, there’s a building that was built in the 1800’s and then the next year and the one next to it is the next type of architecture and then the next thing, and it all somehow just smushes together and becomes this one thing.

Let’s discuss also that documentary photography isn’t just, ‘Oh I just photograph what was there.’ There are so many choices that you make when you make that click in the camera. So there is a huge bias going on, and sometimes I think more so in documentary photography than something that’s set up in a studio, there’s an incredible personal bias going on.

Especially like you said, walking around this city, you’re bombarded with a thousand things you could shoot straight up, straight down, left, right, and you make certain choices, and it says everything about the person behind the camera which in this case, is you. But then as you say, you look at a picture and you’re like, ‘Oh is this a documentary photographer from the 1950’s?’

But then you notice that somebody’s holding a cell phone or wearing a T-shirt that says something that could only have been today, and I think that’s a very interesting quality about your work. I think people think they must be old photographs because they’re very beautiful and very The Little Squares style, they’re shot on film and that’s just what it looks like, there’s no, ‘How did you get it to look like that?’ That’s just what they look like.

It’s nothing against technology or social media, we love it, I mean in fact, we met because I was seeing your stuff on Instagram and you were seeing my stuff on Instagram. Instagram is turning out to be a really great thing because it is just that. It’s those filtered little squares of pictures of pictures. I was against it at first because I thought, ‘Oh they’re not real pictures.’ But I think everybody now understands that they are just pictures of pictures, they are Instagrams, and that is something different than a photograph.

So that’s why I was inspired by you, because I would always tend to Instagram photos of hanging out in the studio and stuff like that, rather than taking one of my pictures and putting it on Instagram. But you broke that fear in me to do that, because now it’s understood that that’s a picture of a picture. And why not have fifty thousand people see it?

ADW: Yeah, you were talking about kind of the nostalgia of the pictures, which I’ve been thinking about a lot because people are saying that a lot. When was this taken? Or, this could have been something else. I think obviously, part of that is that the images are in black and white. Most of your average every day people don’t look at the world in that type of way. I think breaking away that color, you’re left with content and form, right? How the picture looks and what’s happening, you know, the design of it. That’s why people kind of have that feeling of nostalgia when they look at it: it’s life that they see but they don’t see it in this type of way. It’s breaking it down to just light and shade and it helps people focus on what the photographer is feeling. Even though I think there is amazing color photography out there, but when you look at this image of this couple, you are not  focusing on her pink hair or this bright shirt or something, you’re focusing on the emotion in her face and what they’re looking at and what’s happening in the background. It creates a different way of feeling each image.

André D. Wagner

André D. Wagner

DS: I noticed how my eye was drawn to the architecture. It has a lot to do with New York City, how you were saying, every building is like, ‘Oh my god,’ people are used to looking at the skyline but when you’re looking from the eye line, from the street where the eye is, you know what’s going on at that level. You’re setting up these very beautiful and complicated linear structures. No matter where you’re going to shoot, there’s a building, a subway, a street post, there’s always something and you can’t not get that and even if you’re just in the middle of the street, the streets themselves set up those crazy perspectives. You have a lot going on right now, you have a show coming up…

ADW: Yeah I have a show coming up that opens on October 9th, it’s at a gallery called Outlet Fine Art, which is in Bushwick. It’s a group show with three other photographers and it should be amazing. It’s a street photography show.

DS: You’re also working on a book right?

ADW: Yeah, so I’m working on a book right now, it’s called “Here for the Ride.” It’s a book of subway images that started from my commute to work, it was how I killed the mundane-ness of going back and forth from work every day. So I started taking pictures and then it became my thing. Especially during the winter time, by the time I got off work it was dark outside, so I would hang out in the subways a little bit and take pictures, or I would wake up early and take pictures, I just started collecting all of these subway images. Even after I wasn’t working at that job anymore I was still making a lot of images in the subway.

The title, “Here for the Ride” came from ‘this is what I’m seeing on my way to somewhere.’ Most of the images are me going somewhere or coming from somewhere, just moving around the city so if you see the contact sheets – and there’s going to be a packet in the book with more information and the contact sheets – you can see street images and maybe two strips on the subway, and then I’m back on the street. So I’m here for the ride, this is what I’m seeing on a day-to-day basis, coming and going. So that’s the theme of the book, we’re working on it right now and looking to release it in the new year sometime.

DS: I can’t wait! I’ve seen a few of the images, they’re pretty incredible. And that’s again what I’m loving about not only the story we did together, but the whole issue. I have to say, it’s not like no one has ever taken a picture with New York in the background before. At first, I was thinking we should call it “Gotham City,” and then I thought, no that’s just a cliché, but let’s call it that anyway! I don’t know, you bring so much to the pictures. You could set up the same picture that the most famous photographer in the world ever took, and take it again and it would be completely yours.

ADW: Well, I think that’s what photography should be about. It should be personal; I feel like if I couldn’t express myself through my images, why would I be taking the pictures? We were talking about Instagram and social media and I think those tools are great, and we both use them, but I think sometimes in today’s world, people get started in their craft backwards. They start thinking about their audience before they’re thinking about their own work and the influence, and why they want to do something in general. They’re like, ‘Okay I want 100,000 followers so I’m gonna take these pictures,’ instead of saying, ‘This is who I am, this is what I have to say whether you like it or don’t like it, take it or leave it.’ So I didn’t start taking pictures for Instagram or Tumblr or for any other outlet. I was taking pictures for myself and using those outlets to share my voice. You should be able to put 10 different photographers on the same street and we should all have different images, if we all have the same images, then there’s a problem.

DS: I really do want to talk about what’s staring us in the face with these pictures, you know, we can’t say we aren’t living and working within the context of what’s going on in the world. I know it affects me a lot, and I think it affects you a lot as well. There’s a lot of stuff going on in these pictures, whether you like it or not, you’re commenting about race and about class, all those things we aren’t supposed to talk about. And in a really interesting way. Do you have thoughts on that?

ADW: I think what’s interesting in the pictures that we’re using for this issue – which I think is a different view of my work than what I have out there; a lot of the work that I’ve been showing as of late has been mostly images from Brooklyn, which has a completely different feel from being in the city, because Brooklyn just doesn’t get all of the business of what’s happening in the city. So a lot of my images from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights; the moments feel quieter. I shoot with a wide angle lens, but instead of a hundred people in the background, maybe it’s just a family or just an apartment building or something else and I feel like these images are so New York City.

André D. Wagner

André D. Wagner

Even though you might have this central theme happening in the image, you still get so much more happening. I think it adds to this feeling: we have this couple, this girl is holding this guy’s hand and the guy is looking the other way and it feels like such an intimate moment but there’s all this other stuff happening in the background. It adds to this feeling of how you can just dissect an image, where it’s just these little people in the mix of this big thing, but we’re still on this little island and you can keep breaking it down but it’s a spiral, where do you take it? I like the perspective of these images in the city because they show these little intimate things or something about race or class or culture, but in the grand scheme of New York too, its own kind of vignette.

DS: That’s why Gotham City is Gotham City, everybody is here from somewhere and you can’t help but just be amongst people all the time. You’re having an intimate moment walking down the street, but a million people are all around you just while you’re waiting for the light to change, someone’s having a fight, someone’s on the phone, the energy can be overwhelming and it can be like oxygen too.

ADW: Right, and thinking about me being from The Midwest and you being a native New Yorker, me growing up in Omaha and then being dropped into the city as a photographer with a camera in my hand, I’m just like, ‘Oh my god, I’m interested in everything!’ I didn’t see this kind of life growing up, this kind of culture, I didn’t hear these kinds of languages, how everybody is moving around. Back at home, you hop in your car and people drop you off and they go to work, but here, everything that’s good and everything that’s bad is all around you. That’s how I operate, I operate around what I’m interested in and in New York, that would be a lot.

DS: A lot of people say, ‘When I’m out in Brooklyn it’s one thing but when I’m in the city it’s something else.’ But you know, The Bronx, Queens, Staten Island: that’s also the city. What you mean to say is Manhattan. But everybody says that. Even thinking about “Saturday Night Fever” with John Travolta, it was an entire movie about sitting in Brooklyn and the dream of going to Manhattan. Why couldn’t he just get on the train and go there! We still don’t understand what was stopping him from doing that, but then there would be no movie!

ADW: That’s so true too, my first intro to “the city” was working at this summer camp in Upstate New York, and the people I met there were people from The Bronx and Queens or Hunts Point like you were saying, and they were like, ‘Yeah I’ve never been to Manhattan.’  And I was thinking, ‘What?’ But people operate like that, you don’t think about it, but then you meet people who never leave their area, they just stay right there.

DS: But on the other hand, the big opening spread of the story is this sort of sea of faces coming at you. And guess where those people live? Brooklyn, Queens, etc. and so all this mess on this crazy island of Manhattan is a mix of everybody coming all together.  I think that is politically sort of what’s going on in New York right now, and Mayor de Blasio running on this Tale of Two Cities: there aren’t two cities, there are a million cities and people tend to be very Manhattan-centric, when really the city is everything else. Manhattan doesn’t function without everybody else, and if you were here during any of the blizzards or Hurricane Sandy or any time they shut down public transit, Manhattan doesn’t function without all of the other people. So, I wanted the story that we did together to be kind of a celebration of that.

André D. Wagner

André D. Wagner

ADW: I think that’s kind of what drew me into photographing down by the World Trade Center so much, because you go down there and there’s the Path train, and the new World Trade Center, so everyone who’s working in that building, the Vogue and Condé Nast people, and everything else that’s in there. Then you have the buses coming from everywhere else, and the federal building, and people from Brooklyn…

DS: The Staten Island Ferry…

ADW: Exactly! So it’s this conglomerate of all these different types of people, and you can tell they’re going to all different types of jobs just by the way they dress and from which way they’re coming from. You go down to that area and it just tells you so much about New York, but more so about the outside of New York, and where all of these people are from and what all of their communities are like, but they come here to operate together on this island.

DS: Yeah, Manhattan could not exist without them. Our issue is very, very personal, and it’s a mix of little slices of everybody’s personal experiences. What I love about it is that everybody comes to the same description of their love for [the city] and their experience of it, and I think it’s so universal. There’s no other place like New York. It’s a city made up of a million different parts and without every single part, the city can’t exist. So there’s a reason why Spider-Man and all of the superheroes have been set in this made up city, but I think what we’re learning through these experiences, is that it IS sort of like a comic book, you were right.

A dark yet beautiful one.