Evan Dale // June 3, 2020
Andre Wagner is New York. Though born in Omaha, Nebraska, the photographer who moved to the East Coast to continue a budding career in social work, found himself doing so in a way he probably never imagined. In 2011, the city ‘turned [his] world upside down.’ Thrown into its unapparelled pace and diversity, what started as the pursuit a masters degree has led to him to capturing the everyday life of New York’s expansive immensity, publishing his own book in 2017, continuous collaboration with The New York Times, and a commissioned project to shoot his signature black & white photography for the release of Queen & Slim. Needless to say, Andre Wagner found his path in New York City – or at the very least is always forging it ahead, unsure where it will take him but directed by an underlying compass. And more curiously, it would seem that his passion for social work didn’t die when his life underwent a drastic change of pace. His photos are works of honesty, healing, and togetherness – therapeutic and progressive in their nature.
‘In a single frame, I could show you something you’ve always seen in a way you’ve never seen it before,’ says Andre in his 2018 collaboration with Hennessy and Complex Magazine. And that’s the genuine genius behind his vision. Wagner has been capturing the everyday moments that all humans – from Omaha to New York City – experience, but don’t really see on a day-to-day basis. He depicts the eloquence, beauty, and emotion of the moments that pass by most passersby without even a thought. The attention to the human detail and the expressive emotion of every single interaction humans face with one another and their environment, grant his lens – rooted in the sociological and psychological understanding of human beings – a direction unlike anyone else’s.
For his personal portfolio – a diverse, massive collection of images tethered akin by the (almost) exclusivity of a leaning towards black & white – Andre spends his days walking, examining, an capturing the moments only he seems to see, spending his nights developing film negatives and making gelatin prints in his personal darkroom. He is a traditionalist in both his adherence to film development and colorlessness, yet a necessary artist in his pursuit of exhibiting the stories of his fellow New Yorkers – primarily communities and individuals of color. At the intersection of daily life, sociology, race, and art, Andre Wagner has become one of this generation’s most important visual storytellers.
When it came to yesterday’s social media blackout, Wagner – as a black man whose last decade of life and work has been spent curating a portfolio on the Black experience – expressly couldn’t participate.
‘I’m sorry I can’t do this blackout with y’all – my everyday life has been a protest. I have countless stories where my entire life could have been blacked out and ended! Back in high school when I started driving while Black, to being in college in Iowa when the town was trying to have KKK rallies, and still in my adult life. It was only a few weeks ago I shared one of many stories about my camera being mistaken for a gun by the police. Since then I’ve had another incident. And I’ve been crying the past few days out of frustration of wanting to tell more photo stories of my brothers and sisters but also wrestling with the feeling like it’s not safe for me to do the work I’ve been called to do. Since the birth of this medium, black photographers’ voices have been suppressed, though I feel strongly that we need to have work by people that understand what it feels like to be in this black body. Since 2014 I’ve been walking the streets damn near every single day trying to develop a photographic language that is sophisticated but also gets to the heart of what it feels like to be here. Not just New York, but what it’s like to be Black in America. I found out very quickly underneath all the lights of this place, it’s just like everywhere else. So that’s why for now, I’ve decided to put my camera down and fully realize the work I’ve been making that speaks about this very moment. It’s easy to run towards a sensational moment, but my experience as a photographer with a degree in social work has taught me that it’s about the moments people are dealing with day in and day out; the pain, the beauty, the nuance of our humanity. That’s why my next book will be called, New City, Old Blues.’
His first monograph, Here For The Ride, didn’t in any way stray from the Black story he has always been telling. It’s a collection of candid shots on New York City’s subway system, exhibiting no generational, racial, or sociopolitical bias to the diversity of the underground, yet still – adhering to the subway lines of his own daily Brooklyn-Manhattan commute – speaks the same truths that the entirety of his canon long have – tells Black stories.
And now, en route to the eventual release of another publication, rooted in the same demographic as his first, underlining the Black American story, Andre Wagner pushes onward in pursuit of the life’s work he feels called to pursue – the very work that puts his life in danger. It’s odd to even consider that a camera can be dangerous. But documenting the daily life of underrepresented communities, leads to documenting the struggle. And putting to canvas the Black struggle is inherently dangerous for a Black man in America, whose paintbrush is made of steel and glass. His work has always been courageous and necessary; his path always dangerous and difficult. But that isn’t derailing his pursuit of art and Blackness in coalescence, just as it isn’t for so many Black artists across mediums right now – still creating, though through a lens perhaps even more racially charged for social and political change than ever before.
Even with less day-to-day shots inhabiting Wagner’s social media presence as he embarks down the road towards his most important collection to date, his existing portfolio – on social media, online, in his many collaborative piece with The New York Times – is worth a visit and an exploration now more than ever. To see Black lives, and to see that they matter, there are few artists more important to learn from than Andre D. Wagner.