THERE IS FREEDOM IN MANHATTAN
photographs by André D. Wagner
When we first started to plan for issue 7, I spoke with André D. Wagner about doing a group of images that might be very personal to him. I suggested the possibility of traveling somewhere, or maybe retracing a few steps of his life. He said, “absolutely not!” Because, for him, the streets of New York, now more than ever, are the basis for what he feels is the most personal work he has ever done. We discuss the weight of the city on us all and how he is just hitting what he calls a new stride.
André: I think, for me at least, the word personal, I don’t know, I wonder how I really understand it, because the easy thing would be like, “Oh, it’s personal to go photograph my parents,” and show this life of people close to me, or go photograph my fiancé. But personal is also just me being out in the world, and reacting to that, and to who I am. I think that is probably more personal than doing something cliché that we think personal is. So yeah when you told me that I was just like, “Well, my everyday life and how I photograph is personal so why don’t I just stay in Manhattan?”
Debra: Right. I remember you also said that you felt like you were hitting a new stride with your work here.
André: Yeah, hitting a stride, or maybe just starting to wrap my mind around the next project. I am starting to get an idea of what I want to do, or what I think I am trying to do with my photographs. I am ready for what is next. So I’ve hit new strides, and I’ve started to figure out what I want to do, you know, what I will be working on over the next few years.
Debra: You wake up in the morning, hit the streets, and shoot all day everyday if you’re not in the dark room, or shooting for a newspaper, or teaching a class, you are out on the streets shooting, old school. So is it something that has changed in you or do you feel like the city has shifted in some way?
André: I think the city is always shifting. I usually work backwards where I will photograph for a while, and then be looking at images and contact sheets, and I will start to see certain things, and I will be like, “Oh that is interesting.” Or I will see patterns. I like to work backwards and let the work tell me where to go in a sense. I think there have been a few publications that want to feature my work and I feel like a lot of times people just want to find one small little thing that they want to focus on, which I kind of get because you need a point…
Debra: They need a hook.
André: A hook! But for me it’s like they hit me up and are like, “André, we want your Bushwick photographs. Or André, we want your photographs of black people. Or André, we want Manhattan images.” And for me, I see all of these things together as one. I don’t see them as separate bodies of work. And I think that is the new stride that I am on. A little bit in rebuttal to how people want to talk about and share my work, and also just kind of being true to who I am. For me, if all of these live under the same umbrella, I need to make a body of work to show people that they do live under the same umbrella.
I mean, something that we probably talked about a few issues ago when I was photographing in the financial district, and we were talking about the PATH train down there, and I don’t know, whatever comes across the river. All of these places around Manhattan make Manhattan go. Manhattan wouldn’t be what it is without Staten Island, without Brooklyn, without Queens. For me, I live in Brooklyn, I photograph in Brooklyn, but I also photograph a lot in Manhattan so I am in-between these two places all of the time. Obviously, there are stark contrasts between these two places, but they still speak to each other, and I see that in some of my images. I have images that I made in Manhattan, and maybe I have another image I made in Brooklyn, right in Bushwick, and they are similar scenes. Visually they might look different, because in Manhattan you have all of the skyscrapers, and in Brooklyn you have the above-ground train, but the content just talks. The pictures dance.
I think I am starting to get very interested in figuring out how these two worlds live together and put them visually so that they make sense. Just because images in Manhattan feel more robust and loud, because that is how the city is built, doesn’t mean that they can’t live next to images I made in Brooklyn. So I guess that’s the new stride, figuring out how these worlds live together, but more so the world that is in my head, because it is all about the selection, about what I see when I walk out in Brooklyn and Manhattan. So it is more so about me than about these places.
Debra: Right. So it is actually about your stride. I feel like this group of pictures is incredible to see. When you first sent them to me, I looked at the images and said, “These are a certain thing.” And then once I looked at them in context with the other stories in the issue, there was just a certain thing that became very apparent to me through this body of work that you presented.
That is why I think the title is very important with this story, There is Freedom in Manhattan, because there is just the emotion that is coming out of the people. It’s almost as if with every picture you feel the weight of the world on every subject. It is not as if there are people crying in the pictures or anything like that. There is just something very heavy about New York that is expressed in these pictures in an unbelievably beautiful way, but they almost feel oppressive in a sense.
André: I mean, we kind of talked about the title, There is Freedom in Manhattan, as being a contradiction. I was shooting for this, and one day I came up at 42nd Street, and the light was shining straight through my eyes, and all of the people were starting to move, but it still had that morning eerie quiet feel, but you feel that hustle and bustle and the energy. I just took a deep breath and it just hit me, “There is Freedom in Manhattan.” At the same time, initially, I thought there is freedom, like these simple things about freedom, like you can be who you are, you are free to be who you want to be, or people can express themselves, or I can roll through the city all day and nobody cares that I am taking pictures. There are these qualities that may seem like freedom, but I also feel like when you say, “Freedom is in this place,” it’s not like you really have freedom.
It’s like somewhere else, it’s not really in you, you have to go to Manhattan to be free, you know, it’s a contradiction. It doesn’t really make sense. I guess, maybe the pictures are expressing these different qualities of freedom, which sometimes might feel uplifting, like the word freedom does, but sometimes it is really dark and not at all like that positive vibe you think of when you hear the word freedom. And then also, think of the word freedom as a black man. And then, also, being in Manhattan I am always reminded of who I am. Can I really be free when that is right there? I like the title, but it is a contradiction, and I think it does make some kind of place for these images.
Debra: Yeah. It is very interesting. I have heard this lament. I want to talk more about this, you being pegged as a black photographer who photographs black people. You made a really good point. You said, “Was Robert Frank known as the Jewish photographer who photographed Jewish people?” Of course not. I think that’s the kind of documentary photographer – the kind of artist – that you are. In every picture you’re expressing that which is within you. That is coming out. What do we say about that? That is the state of the world. So what is your move then? Edit out all of the black people?
André: I think there has to be a balance between how the work is presented and talked about. I think, for me personally, that is where a lot of the frustration comes. A lot of times you are given all of these labels and you are not giving the viewer a chance to engage with the work, to purely just come to the work as they are. Obviously, if the work hits on some political notes, or if it seems like it is this counterculture, let the viewer come to that place. So the labels are tricky, and then it’s tricky in the way that the work is presented. It’s like, “Here’s André Wagner and here are these pictures of black people.” And that is just so simple and it undermines everything that I’m doing every single day. Yes, I’m black. Yes, these are pictures of black people. But I just want to figure out a way to bring some normalcy to it instead of just looking at it like, “Oh here are some pictures of black people,” like we are at a zoo. Yeah, I’m black, and I’m proud to be black, and yes, I photograph black people, and I love that I can do that, but I want to be put in the realm of a great photographer, or a great person, or just a photographer. But maybe because of who I am I can’t just have that, that I’m just a photographer. And I understand that, especially in America. Yeah, I mean I remember there was an interview with James Baldwin and the interviewer asked him, she was like, “Do you write for black people?” And he was like, “Of course I write for black people. What do you mean? But this work is for the world, it is for whoever likes to read.” It’s not even a literary question. So really that question is about something else, you know, it’s not really about the work, it’s about something else.
Debra: People want to be able to easily sum you up. Whether it’s for the masses, or in two seconds, or quickly on your phone, you know, we have all of these other dilemmas, these technological dilemmas, that everything is fast fast fast, click click click. So now, more than ever, people need to know in two seconds, even in terms of the way that we write the text, people are like, you have to tell us exactly what the whole thing is about in the first two sentences. Well what about the other 4,000 words? “You need to sum it all up in the first two sentences, otherwise if people don’t know what they’re going to read they are not going to read it.”
André: The thing with me is that I am really interested in photography and visual language, visual literacy, editing. I am in photography in the deep end. If people want to come and talk to me about some really basic level type of stuff, I can’t even meet you there because I am on a whole other thing. It’s like me being black, me photographing black people, or anything about my blackness, I have been doing that for 30 years. Yes, that is going to be in my work but let’s have a real conversation about something other than how I look or what it is that you think that I do. For me, that is the frustrating part, living in the world today where so much is lost and thrown away when it comes to visual language and real photography. With me being on the deep end of that, it’s like, I want to be part of trying to keep that thing alive. I want to be a part of these serious photographers doing serious work. I try not to take myself too seriously, but this is what I do. I do photography. Yeah we can talk about race and all of that stuff, but if you don’t know anything about photography, then I don’t really know… I am a photographer. Like I fell in love with photography.
I happened to live my life, and be from Omaha, and play basketball, and had gone to college and changed my career. I’ve lived a life up until now, and I have a lot to say, and I am going to do that through photography. But I’m dedicated to photography. I want to push the medium forward. That is the thing for me, I don’t want to talk about basic stuff. Seriously though, I was just at Columbia University with Thomas Roma who runs the photo department and he is one of the few left of this generation, of the foundation of the kind of photography that I want to be a part of. I’m talking about sitting next to somebody that is an expert in what they do. Even being in the same room as him – I literally wanted to cry. I thought, “This is why I came to New York. This is why I do what I do. This is why I want to excel.” Because I want to be in the same room as Thomas Roma. Somebody who has actually been around the block and some, and can actually add to conversation. I want to be around people like that, not people who need something quick for Instagram. It’s two different worlds. I am in this thing for the long run, I could care less about these quick hits or whatever. At the end of the day, the only things that will be here are my photographs, and if I don’t take that shit seriously, all of that will be lost in the cloud somewhere.
Debra: Right. I mean it’s back to the theme of the issue which is to be inspired by the journals of Edward Weston. He was up against it himself. At that time, in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, photography was starting to become part of the arts, let’s say. He lamented about the pictorialists, and setting up pictures, and photography at that time was very set up in studios, and dramatic lighting. And why? They got very good at that, at that time.
Because of my background at French and Italian Vogue, I know that period in fashion photography very well. That was an unbelievable moment. And here Weston goes out and says, “I’m just going to point my camera at a rock.” And he isolated himself from the rest of the art world, he wasn’t hanging around in New York at Fortune Magazine like Walker Evans. He wasn’t part of that, he just hung out with other artists, and considered himself an artist, even when people weren’t taking photography very seriously. So now we’re forward all of these years later, and photography is under attack again, and that is why I am so interested in what was happening at that time. That was the last time photography was a second-class citizen.
André: The thing about photography is that people have always had cameras. Even when Kodak’s first camera came out, they made things really simple, they were like, “Buy this camera and put in the film. Give it to us and we will do the rest.” It’s never been really hard to physically make pictures. The point is, most people don’t see anything. So I think people are confused and are like, “Oh everybody has a camera.” Yeah, anybody can take a picture but not everyone has a vision.
Debra: To quote Weston’s journals, “I want the stark beauty that a lens can so exactly render presented without interference of artistic effect.” To me, that is a very spiritual statement.
André: That quote reminds me of something that photographer Mark Steinmetz says about his pictures, and how he talks about this world of normal view, I think he calls it, and pretty much he said he wants his images to feel like when you walk down the street, and his images feel the same way as anyone would who walks down the street. When you see his images you are going to realize that this guy is actually seeing something that everybody else would just walk past.
The view is normal, we all are in this same place, but when you see this picture, it is going to completely change, you’re not even going to think you were standing right next to me. That’s it. It’s not about an artistic effect, it's not about a filter, it’s about what this guy saw and what he made with his camera, this little machine. That is true beauty, because that was inside this guy’s soul. This is how he walks around and interprets the world. That’s the same way that we see everything. I think there is a lot of beauty in that. That’s his normal view, but when you see that picture, it’s not normal at all.
Debra: When you first said, “There’s Freedom in Manhattan,” I was like, "Great! It’s gonna be like…yeah…you get out of the subway and it’s dynamic and it’s all happening and New York! New York!" And, in fact, it is the opposite of that. You captured over and over again, in all of these different people, that we all live in the human condition, and the weight of the world is on us. We all are living in that human condition, and like you said, we tend to not look at each other too much because we all are in our own mind.
André: That one picture of the woman opening the door, that alone, I mean how many times do we walk past someone opening the door. For me, everything came together, with her jaw line, the way all of these lines work, the door being almost…just all of this tension, her energy, and then she is walking inside of McDonalds. You know. That’s fuckin’ Manhattan. I’m just like, “I know that day. That was me yesterday, fuckin’ going to get some fries. That was all I got today."
Debra: Exactly. There is so much tension in every image and every time I saw it I was like, “Oh my god.” And, you know, it’s funny, after the subway, the girl in that one, I just felt like her face embodies exactly what we’re trying to say, like nothing spectacular is going on in that picture. But the feeling that you get from that girl really embodied the whole vibe so well. A lot of your pictures are like that. It’s not the one in the really cool shirt or the awesome outfit, or the weirdos, you can capture what most people consider very normal, almost boring looking people, but you are grabbing something out of the world. You are grabbing all of the emotion out of them somehow. Dre, you really outdid yourself!
André: Well, that is the great thing, especially for photographers who want to go out and operate in this world. I mean, yeah, I live in a great city to photograph, but I learned long ago that you don't have to search for photographs. You just have to live your life and photographs will appear in front of you every single day.
*listen to the conversation on the podcast