Étranger Sur La Terre
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDRÉ D. WAGNER
Having spent many years in Paris as an editor at French Vogue, I can honestly say that there is just something about that city. Maybe that’s because there seems to be a unique value placed on the creative impulse, on aesthetics, and on the idea of Parisianness.
So as I recall my own experiences there, photographer André D. Wagner talks about taking a break from his home turf in Gotham City, and realizing that taking pictures involves many more senses than just the visual. While André captures that old school romantic quality that haunts that town, he simultaneously picks up on the more contemporary aspects of the culture that is always in flux, that always seems to reject and embrace modernity at the same time.
Debra: What about Paris makes you want to photograph there?
André: I remember when I first got there, I thought, wow, even in Paris a McDonald’s isn’t going to look like it does in America. It is going to be in this chic, all-brick building, and you might not know it is really McDonald’s unless you walk in.
That is one of the things that I noticed. Obviously the architecture is beautiful there. It is beautiful in New York, but you might see a beautiful old building in New York, but then right next to it there would be some modern glass building all the way up to the sky that was just built yesterday. I didn’t see that in Paris at all. Beautiful buildings were everywhere.
As far as aesthetics, I see what you mean, because it is a beautiful place and everything is beautiful there. All of the buildings are beautiful, the way people dress, their mannerisms, the way they walk down the street; it was just very different than New York. It felt similar in a sense, because there is such a rich street life and a street culture, which obviously I identify with because it is part of the reason that I love New York.
Debra: Yes, that’s true. You walk around Paris like the way you walk around New York.
André: I love that, because that is the way I like to photograph. I want to be able to walk outside and take pictures. I love that there. But I also just love the way that the people carry themselves and the way that the street life felt. It just kind of had its own kind of energy, I couldn’t even relate it to a New York energy.
I remember one day I went to a section of the city that was kind of like a business area, I can’t remember what it’s called. I remember I had to take the train, and it was really far, and it had more blank kinds of modern structures. There were all of these business people who worked in the area. I was thinking, “Ok, maybe this is kind of like Wall Street in New York.” And I went there and I made some photographs. I don’t think any of them are included in this.
But even that felt so distinct and far from anything related to New York. Even if there was a business section of Paris, it didn’t feel like a business section of New York at all. They just don’t feel like they fit together, like they are their own separate things. So that was something as far as aesthetics. The street life is different. It is beautiful. It is very chic.
Debra: You understand what that word means when you are there. It does describe something peculiar about that place.
André: I guess for me, being an American photographer, the first thing that was a challenge when I landed there was, obviously, that I didn’t speak French. You would think that photography is only visual, but once I got to Paris I also realized how much language does inform the way I interact with the world when I am out taking pictures. When I was there I didn’t understand the language and it informed me, or impacted me, in a different kind of way and I was trying to figure out how to deal with that.
How do I photograph in a place where I don’t understand what people are saying? I can be in Brooklyn photographing and it has its own kind of lingo and people talk a certain way, and then I come to Manhattan and it’s a different kind of lingo and people. But then I go to Paris and I don’t even understand what people are saying at all. Even if I were to photograph somebody and somebody were to say something to me, I don’t even know what they are saying to me. Or if I am in danger, or if somebody is happy or sad.
I just remember when I was photographing there that it was all about visuals and feelings, because I didn’t have language to back anything up. I was just like, “Ok, I just need to have the most profound visual experience of the city as possible because that is the only way that I can really interact with it right now.”
That was interesting and very different than the way I had photographed ever before. But I don’t know, it also kind of made me realize, “Ok, now that one of your senses is gone, I guess your other senses become more profound.” So if I can’t understand what people are saying, then my visual language needs to be more on point or something like that, if that makes sense.
Debra: Paris is extremely romantic and you can’t deny that. You are surrounded by that, all of the time. I think Instagram has proved that everyone loves a beautiful sunset, so it doesn’t get any more beautiful than a sunset in that city. And I’m sure it’s probably that way by design.
But a funny side note is that after studying art history in school, where you are sort of looking at all of these pictures of paintings and things, and you are studying all of the famous artists who lived and worked in France throughout history. It happened when I first was living there.
I was walking home from the office, and I looked up at the sky and thought, “Oh, the clouds actually do look like that. I thought that the artists were just making up ideas of clouds in paintings.” But all along, even in the Baroque and Rococco periods, they were just painting what the sky really looked like in Paris. It was almost disappointing. They copied it exactly.
So we are always talking about being in the world and grabbing stories out of the world. Besides the language thing, what is it like being in such a foreign land where you don’t have your bearings and you don’t know what is around the corner?
André: It is a little bit intimidating. Especially for me, the very first time I went there was also the first time that I had ever traveled out of the country. So there was also that. It was my first experience being somewhere truly foreign for the first time and I was by myself. But I guess Paris was a great place for the first trip to be. Just by living in New York City, I was able to look at the Paris subway map and figure out how to get around because it mimics, or it is very similar to how you would navigate New York.
There are definitely some similarities between cities that helped me navigate. The first time I went I was there for two weeks. I had brought some hair clippers with me because I wanted to give myself a little shape up. I had an adapter to plug it in and it just pretty much blew up into smoke in like two minutes.
I was like, “Fuck!” so I went to this neighborhood, Saint Denis, and I remember the lady I was staying with in the Airbnb said, “Oh you shouldn’t go there. That’s not the best place to go.” But I knew I had to go somewhere where Africans were, because I needed to find a barbershop. And I thought, “If this is where the Africans are that’s probably the best bet I’ve got to getting a good haircut.”
I went to Saint Denis and it was interesting because I remember getting off the subway, and I obviously didn’t fit in because as soon as I got off I probably got like two blocks and two random people stopped me and said, “Oh you should put your camera away.” And I thought, “Damn, maybe I shouldn’t have come here after all!” I was just kind of walking around and there was a vendor and he was trying to talk to me and I said, “I don’t speak French.”
He had been to New York before and he was like, “Oh, I’m trying to learn English and I need to practice.” So we were talking to each other and I said I needed a haircut. He pretty much took the rest of his day to show me around Saint Denis just to practice his English.
It was great because we had this instant connection. I live in the place that he wants to get to and he was in love with the idea of Brooklyn. Now I’m visiting his turf and he was like, “Oh I’m going to help you get that haircut, take you somewhere to get some food, and stuff like that.”
I spent the rest of my day with this guy. I took pictures all day, at the barbershop and beyond and maybe they’re not the best pictures in the world, but for me, it was just a great moment in Paris, and also being in a part of Paris that I probably wouldn’t have gone to if my clippers hadn’t blown out.
Debra: Something that I noticed about the pictures is that usually when you see pictures of Paris, you only see white people. Unless it is specifically, “We went to this horrible place…”
André: Like Saint Denis.
Debra: I don’t think that French society sees themselves in the way that your pictures do. Of course there is the girl that Vogue does the, “You’ll never have style like a French girl.” story over and over again. Even on the train, you are just not even used to seeing subway pictures taken in Paris.
André: I feel like that is one of the things that I noticed because even where I was staying wasn’t in city central. I guess I was staying on the outskirts. You can tell that where I was staying was a very diverse neighborhood, and then when I would go into the city center, like you said, there were just beautiful white people walking through the city. That is kind of like the Paris that you always see.
But I was also seeing a different side of Paris. When I thought about Paris, these are things that I’d never really thought about before, like being in this African neighborhood, and them helping me out, getting a haircut, eating some food that I’d never had before. I was just like, “I’m having this experience because this is what I’m opening myself up to.” I’m not just hanging out at the Eiffel Tower, but instead I’m trying to see what else there is in this foreign place.
Debra: It is an interesting view because it’s definitely more like being in the world. You’re being in the world. You went to Paris. You saw it with those eyes that you are always looking at the world with. I just think it is very telling. I feel like these pictures are talking back to all of the stories that you’ve done with us before.
We always talk about New York being so diverse, but maybe it is you seeing that in the world. And obviously that’s great. Again, you said it when we were talking about There is Freedom in Manhattan. It is never hard finding pictures, there are pictures everywhere you look!
I was actually excited that they weren’t the typical Paris pictures. There is no doubt about that. I feel like to end this on a positive note, obviously we are in a difficult time in the world right now, but I feel like Paris has had it especially tough. Paris could use a little bit of love so I am happy that you came on this ride, down the tunnel of love to Paris.
André: Yeah I feel like the more I work, the more I learn to understand my work even more. I guess it is kind of me. I don’t think too much of who I am. I’m just a human.
My background is in social work. I don’t think about it too much but I guess it all makes sense, all of the routes that I’ve taken, and the reason why I do the kind of work that I do. I feel like I am very in tune with myself and the people around me. I guess I just leave myself open to all of it, whatever all of it may be. I guess that is what I bring to my photography.