Andy Summers has been a photographer since the early 1980s when he was the guitarist with The Police. He has published three books of photography: “Throb” with William Morrow & Company in 1983, “I’ll Be Watching You” with Taschen in 2007 and “Desirer Walks the Streets” with Nazraeli Press in 2009. He also collaborated with Ralph Gibson on “Light Strings.” The film “Can’t Stand Losing You,” based on his best selling biography “One Train Later,” will be released by Cinema Libre in May of 2014.
His exhibition “Andy Summers – Del Mondo” opens up at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles on November 9, 2013 and runs through January 4, 2014. We spoke with Andy at length about his work and the relationship between photography and music. Here is the first part of our interview with Andy examining his approach to photography and discussing his recent transition to the Leica M Monochrom.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your exhibition “Andy Summers – Del Mondo” opening up on November 9 at Leica Gallery Los Angeles? What can visitors expect to see?
A: The Del Mondo exhibit at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles will be a selection of photographs shot around the world in the last few years. From Tanzania to Shanghai — I find travel inspiring for photography. I don’t mean snaps of ethnic people, but rather wandering as far from the beaten tourist track as possible.
Q: All of the images presented are in black-and-white. Do you normally shoot in black-and-white? What is it that you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium for your kind of work?
A: I usually shoot in black-and-white but also carry a smaller camera to shoot some color. I have always found black-and-white to be more compelling than color. It seems to be more like photography! I don’t know why that is. It seems to carry more significance. Maybe there is a historical precedent there. Photography didn’t get better with the advent of color.
Q: Since you prefer black-and-white, do you use the Leica M Monochrom? What lenses do you prefer?
A: Currently I am using the Leica Monochrom as my principal camera along with a 50 mm Summilux f/1.4 ASPH., 35 mm Summilux f/1.4 ASPH. and a Summicron 90 mm f/2. Occasionally I will add in Summicron 28 mm and maybe a 75 mm.
Q: Is shooting with the Monochrom a qualitatively different experience than shooting with film or is it the same thing?
A: My last great parade with film was the summer of last year. I went to Asia for about five weeks and I shot 95 rolls of film as I went through countries and airports and struggled with it. I actually did that trip when the Monochrom was out but I couldn’t get one so off I went with my M6 with an incredible amount of film and I did it. What’s so great about the Monochrom for me personally, is that it is literally the same camera as the M6 only now it’s digital. Of course the black-and-white, which is all it shoots, is incredible. I’ve got the same size object in my hand, the same lenses I always use. I can use all the same moves in terms of aperture, where I set the ISO, but you get more chances with it because you can look at the picture on the back of the camera. With film you have to use instinct to know if you need to shoot more or correct. Now you can look at the picture on the back and you can correct the exposure. You can change it up quickly, especially if it’s a still image. If it’s a moving image you might only get a moment to do it.
Q: And have you found the Monochrom, in terms of tonal gradation and the quality, to be comparable to film?
A: I’m still going to say that film is the ultimate, but yeah it is. Film is just becoming so difficult now, practically speaking. When I came back from Asia last summer I had like 95 contact sheets to make and I had to digitize everything. It’s like thousands and thousands of dollars just to go through the whole process of film. With digital, you can just walk back with a few filmcards and you’re done. Put them on your computer.
Q: Now the three lenses you mentioned using primarily are the 50 mm and 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH. and the 90 mm f/2. Which one do you use the most often? Do you favor any one?
A: Blanket statement is the 50 mm is the ultimate lens. It is the most straight on and the most pure. It’s the way we see. It’s the one you should be the most disciplined with. That’ll test you, rather than cheat with a 21 mm or 28 mm.
Q: Do you think there is such a thing as a Leica look? In other words, do the Leica lenses have an identity?
A: There is no question. They are the most superior lenses. The glass, the precision, engineering and everything else. If you really get into and go through some of the old lenses, there are people who are absolute fanatics about this with the old 35s. There is this really buttery kind of break up of the image, a soft kind of halo look. Very photographic. One thing that did occur to me with Leica lenses, there is always a sort of push to make the most crisp, detailed, sharp-edged look to everything. But you don’t always wants that. One of the things I really enjoy is if you shoot wide open, like if you want to shoot a portrait of someone and you want to break up all the details of the background, that’s what I’m looking for more. You can call it more of a painterly look.
Q: This image of kids swimming is quite beautiful. What were you thinking when you shot that picture? Do you think it says anything about the life and culture of Myanmar?
A: That photograph came at the end of a long day. Amapor is in a little town at the outskirts of Mandalay. I had a whole day there. We started at nine in the morning and went to all these places. It was a great day for photography. Right towards the end of the day, we were looking for this wooden bridge that goes across the lake and there was a lot of activity going on. We were walking through this market and we saw these kids jumping into the water. They were having the time of their lives and it was a very compelling picture. It wasn’t one of the moments where you think, “Oh this is joyous, maybe I should snap a picture.” No you go, “Got it!” and you’re making lightening fast judgments about the exposure and the lens. I must have shot it on a 35 mm to get that much of the scene in. I probably got about eight shots off before I stopped. It was a great moment and I loved the activity of it. They were having too much fun and I really like shooting pictures with water in them for some reason.
Q: Another shot is of what seems to be a religious event on a rainy day. The expressions on the individual faces are so great. Which lens did you use for that?
A: It was a 35 mm. Recently, I’ve been trying to just shoot with a 50 mm, but during that particular period the lens I kept on most of the time was the 35 mm. That was a marvelous day because I was with a friend in Peru, up in Cusco in the main old town. It was All Saints’ Day with incredible stuff happening everywhere. I have almost a whole book’s worth from that day. I followed some parades around. There were musicians everywhere, incredible costumes, so on and so forth. We were having a great time walking around and shooting away. Then it started to rain and they all put on their plastic masks. I ended up with this shot which seemed to really have something. It was a great day. These kind of things for me are wonderful. They are like a great adventure. It’s thrilling.
Q: That image does what photography does best: captures place and time.
A: That is what you are looking for. You can’t articulate it at the time but when you see it, you just know.
Q: One picture that is really amusing is this image of what is perhaps your bed.
A: It is my bed. I’ve spent most of my life on the road and this was in 2007. I was on tour with The Police and we were in London at the time. Just as a matter of fact, I tend to document what I’m going through. As much as I see a great moment and I can’t miss it, sometimes I just want to shoot the room I’m in. So amongst the things I do there are these pictures of hotel rooms because I just document it in case one day I want to look back at it. This one came out particularly well. There is an intimacy to it that you don’t see very often.
Q: Photography is an evolving process and any good photographer is evolving, changing and improving in many ways or taking things to a new level. How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years? Do you plan on continuing in the same vain?
A: I’m very happy doing with photography what I want to do. I don’t really like a lot of modern photography. It’s more like conceptual art. It’s not what turns me on. I get it, but I don’t find it very inspiring. There is a lot of blandness to it that’s kind of a modern aesthetic. Hopefully one keeps refining one’s eye and technical ability. This a fairly new thing to move into the Monochrom and digital. But to be in India or China or whatever, I find it so thrilling to be able to go out into the street and to shoot and find that surrealism of everyday life.
Q: That’s a good expression, to “find that surrealism of everyday life”. You would make a good portrait photographer.
A: I’d be happy to do that if someone gave me an assignment. I think it would be a challenge on many levels and I’d be up for that. We’ll see where it goes. I’ve dabbled in all things. Portrait and whatnot, but celebrity photography doesn’t really interest me all that much. I think for me I like the sense of danger, being a bit threatened. Sometimes in these circumstances it can be very dodgy and fast while you’re going around trying to get pictures and trying not to get beaten up. I’ve been in a few situations where I’ve just about gotten away with it.
Q: Remember the Leica is very sturdy and you can use it in self-protection if you need to.
A: I actually heard that Cartier-Bresson used to wear his Leica on a short leather strap. He is known for always getting into these problems. Everyone does. And he could lash out with his camera if anyone came at him. So there you go, from the master himself.
Thank you for your time, Andy!
– Leica Internet Team
See more of Andy’s work on his website. Check out his exhibition “Andy Summers – Del Mondo” at Leica Gallery Los Angeles from November 9, 2013 – January 4, 2014.