Leon Dische Becker: I recently read a novel where a narrator says that “when people have their picture taken, they lose their humanity.” He’s talking about that moment when we know we’re being photographed and are no longer ourselves. I feel exactly the opposite with your photographs. Your subjects seem completely themselves, completely comfortable. How do you achieve that spontaneity? How do you handle yourself?
Andre D. Wagner: I try to be inconspicuous when I’m shooting. People’s natural movements are just so beautiful when they don’t notice there’s a camera. That’s hard to do sometimes. People in 2017 are very aware of cameras. And I don’t shoot from the hip; I always bring the camera up to my face. Sometimes I’ll shoot a picture just as someone is looking at me out of the corner of their eye. But there are different types of eye contact. There’s one kind, where someone’s like, ‘oh shit, somebody’s taking my photograph.’ But there’s another that comes on like half a second before the ‘oh shit’ moment — a more mysterious, a more curious look. I’m more interested in that than a look of surprise. If they see me and adjust themselves, I feel like I’m imposing too much. I’m not trying to change the scene in any way. I’m photographing something because it hit me and that’s what I’m trying to grab. There’s something beautiful about that to me. I try to avoid eye contact, but if I catch it, I want it to be genuine.
You have to be very fast for that.
I grew up playing sports. I played basketball in high school and college. I realized at a certain point that being an athletic person has carried over into my photography. When things are moving — that’s when I’m most excited. When I’m out shooting, I’m moving through these crowds, I kind of see it like I’m dancing with people, the street has a rhythm to it. I’ve got my camera, I know my settings, and then I can just react to what I see and what I feel. It’s the same thing with basketball: you just want to stay loose and not overthink things. You’ve got to react to what the defense is giving to you. In the same way, in the street, I just play off whatever is happening. The editing is completely separate from being out there and making work; that’s when I think about it critically. If I did that while shooting, I’ll be looking for a certain kind of image or a certain type of person. And I might be closing myself off to a whole new path I didn’t know I could go down.
Your camera seems to help in that regard. People are very used to iPhone photography — they know when you’re photographing them. They’re used to photojournalists with huge digital cameras. Your Leica allows you to be fast and it’s not what people are expecting from a photographer.
Yes, my camera is another little aspect of it. That’s why I stuck with the Leica. I can operate it without looking at the settings.
Do you dress a certain way when you go out to shoot?
Definitely. I try to dress like common folks when I’m out. I’m not trying to look like it’s fashion week. I try to blend in. That gets difficult when I’m traveling. I went to an African market in Paris. As an African-American, I already stick out because I’m more light-skinned. I think I was wearing a fedora. And most people there were wearing either African prints or street clothes. I gave myself away before I even started. To be honest, I struggle with shooting outside of America. When I’m here, I know what I’m working on. I know the culture, the body language. I see the nuances of how things work.
You fill around 10 rolls a day with street scenes and people that you see. How do you go about all that work on a daily basis?
I usually wake up early, work out, have my coffee, and I’m out of the door by 7:30 am, because I want to hit the crowd as the day starts. I want to photograph kids going to school, people going to work. I’ll photograph all morning and then I’ll take an early lunch break, at 11, so by the time I’m done with lunch I can photograph the actual lunch crowd, then I’ll take a break in the park, read a bit, and then I’ll be ready when people are getting off of work. I make my schedule around what’s happening so I can make as many photographs as possible.
You develop your own pictures, sometimes weeks after shooting them. Do you still remember shooting each individual picture, or are you surprised sometimes, experiencing each one anew as it comes out?
I’ll remember certain scenes, where I’ll notice something and feel like it has a lot of potential, but every now and then I’ll get a big surprise. Especially in summer, when New York is so beautiful and I’m out walking for 10 hours straight, I don’t feel like developing and the roles pile up. I get a lot of surprises that way.
What was your favorite moment like that?
It’s a photo I took last summer — a classic New York scene. There’s a block party happening. The fire hydrants are blasting. This one picture shows a kid standing on his hands doing the splits in the air in the water of several hydrants, and it’s so bright. The picture is kind-of abstract. You don’t see the street or the block party happening behind. There’s something magical about it, cut off from reality. This is one of the advantages of shooting on film. I remember getting the negative and being so captivated by it. I remembered that day of shooting. I’d spent all day in Harlem, then came back home on the J-train over the Williamsburg Bridge, and there was construction, so I had to take a shuttle bus, and when I got to the other end, I just decided to walk, and I walked into this block party. I had already worn myself out, when I caught that amazing picture, and it made it all worth it, after all. You can’t search for an image like that. Sometimes you need to be exhausted.
All of your photos are in black and white, and as a result there’s something wonderfully historical and timeless about them. In some of them, you can’t even tell what decade it is. Why don’t you shoot in color?
Black and White just speaks so much to me. I love the harmony of it. I get annoyed when people talk about the nostalgia of the work, because that strikes me as a cop-out. That’s not why I use black and white. I use it because it takes people out of the world as they see it, which makes them focus on the content. Black and white cuts straight to the chase. I did this series for the New York Times of people going to church on Sunday’s. And I have this image of all these girls and they’re in African garments on a stoop in Harlem. When I was there, it was so colorful, the colors were all over the place, but looking at that image in black and white, the harmony was so clear. Photographs are not the real world. They’re flat, two-dimensional, and I’m not interested in trying to recreate the real world, so for me the black and white is another step away from reality. You can have a real experience with the image, without the distraction of color. I’m trying to show you what I’m seeing, what I’m thinking about, my sensibilities, what I think is important, and taking you away from your familiar colors only helps. For example, when you’re looking at my subway pictures, you won’t have your usual associations of the subway, it’s dirty, it’s bright, it’s grimy, but your diving right into my vision.
You’re now releasing your first photo book, “Here for a Ride,” which only features pictures you shot on the subway. You’re known for your street photography, why did you choose to make your first book about the underground?
I didn’t set out to make a subway book. I tend to work backwards. I go out and make work and then I let the work speak to me. That’s what happened here. Photographing on the subway isn’t easy. It’s close corners. Everybody’s sitting there looking at each other. Moments are fleeting. It’s hard to know the light. When I’m out shooting on the street, I draw on the fluidity of the life and how people are moving. The subway is more static. There’s movement but it’s more fleeting. So I started to see the subway as a challenge, a good challenge. To make a book, it helps to have some limitations. I found themes in the subway and broke it down into little chapters. But I didn’t want to be limited by the theme either. It’s not about the subway, it’s about the people.
Did making a book change your approach to photography?
Definitely. Putting together a book was an interesting learning process, and now I feel like I’ve found my form. Many of my favorite photographers were also great editors, and I wanted to learn that too. Photo books unlock the hidden meaning of pictures through the relation between images. That’s not something I can do on Instagram or the internet. It’s so intentional, one page to the next. I learned more about photography and what I was trying to do as time went on. The work kept speaking to me.