Andy Summers is well-known for his work as a musician and being a member of the band The Police. He is also a well-established photographer whose work is currently on display through January 4, 2014 at Leica Gallery Los Angeles. In part one of his interview, we spoke to him about his work with the Leica M Monochrom. Here is part two of his interview where we examine how he got started in photography.
Q: You are known for being a musician. How did you go from being a guitarist for The Police to being a photographer too? Did you find this a natural transition?
A: I don’t think I went from being the guitarist of The Police to being a photographer, rather they became twin occupations. I was in a period when there was a lot to photograph, much to see, scenes worth capturing, so photography became, for me anyway, a natural extension and expression of all that I was living through.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: My serious interest in photography began in about 1980 when I was on tour for almost 365 days a year. But to back track a bit, I believe that it was the constant exposure to European art films in my teenage years that sowed the seed.
I was inspired by Fellini, Truffaut, Bergman, etc. whose films were usually in black-and-white. I think that the power and romanticism of those films and the emotions that I associated with it always stayed with me. But music was such a powerful force in my life that it was some time before I stepped out to embrace the actual serious medium of photography. It was one day in New York between gigs when I decided to go and buy a serious camera and to pursue it with intent.
Q: What did that day in New York between gigs feel like?
A: I remember it clearly. I was in a period where we were an incredibly hot band, successful and growing to a mania, and we were surrounded by photographers all the time. Just like anyone else in life, I had a camera and took pictures but I had never taken it on as a serious discipline. I think I’d been discussing this with photographers and watching them and so forth. I think the seed was already there. I do seem to have a knack for it. I took to it very quickly. But I decided to get a really good camera and start pursing it, to try to be good at it and to study it. I went with a photographer in New York and bought a Nikon FE, which is what I started with. Then I started studying the images and reading up about photography and started to shoot a lot of film and carry the camera everywhere. I was examining my contact sheets and came to some conclusions about the way I was shooting. That’s just how it is. I had so much discipline from the music in me and obviously some sort of mood or a need to express things in life through this black-and-white imagery. That’s how I trace it back to where I first got turned on to it. It might have to do with all the European art films I watched as a kid. Those were a huge emotional influence on me. They swept me off my feet. They were informative and educational and very inspiring to me.
Q: On your website, it reads that you believe “music and photography are kindred spirits.” Can you expound on that statement and how you feel they are connected?
A: Yes I do believe that there can be a relationship between music and photography. Simply put, it would be seeing one in terms of the other. I tend to see things in terms of music. So moving on to photography from music I would instinctively be looking for those conditions. It seems to me to be a distinct advantage to come to a new medium with a full load from another. If you start with music, with work you will develop a sense of line and shape, abstraction versus straight, etc. — all of which have pictorial parallels.
Q: Your statement, “If you start with music with work you will develop a sense of line and shape, abstraction versus straight, etc. — all of which have pictorial parallels” is insightful. What kind of process did you have to go through to translate your musical ideas into images?
A: The old expression goes, “all art aspires to the condition of music.” We all know that one. I don’t think you can articulate these things, especially in your early stages, but as you go on and educate yourself with years of practicing your music — and not only playing your instrument, but studying music and how you write it, studying harmony and theory and all the stuff that makes music what it is — I think you build a brain for it and a sense for these things that translate into other mediums. When I started with photography I probably didn’t see it like a line there … like I see this picture like a chord … it’s not quite as obvious as that. But I think in time you have the same sensibility that translates ones to the other to some degree. Jazz was a huge thing for me. I think, crudely put, I’m trying to find the same sensibilities in photography that I’m drawn to in music.
Q: I think it’s very subtle.
A: People always want to articulate. So much of creativity is building your chops over the years. You don’t think about it you just do it. You want to get to the place, and this is certainly true with music, where you are on stage and you’re in the moment and you’re doing it and you’re not thinking about it. Because that’s who you are now. Of course that takes many years of preparation to get there. It’s the same thing with photography. You’re in the moment. You’re seeing it and feeling it and doing it. That’s the way it is. You’ve got to get yourself there and that’s the process.
Q: How did you get introduced to Leica and was there a mentor or photographer who has inspired you?
A: If I have had any mentor in photography at all it would definitely be Ralph Gibson. Ralph’s work was a great inspiration to me, especially in the early stages. In Ralph’s work I saw — felt — those qualities of music that I always seem to seek.
I was introduced to Leica by Ralph and got it immediately. There simply is no match for this camera. I have used the M6 for years and now finally have moved into digital with the fabulous Monochrom, which allows the same comfort and the same set of moves that I have been used to with the M6.
I would also have to say the work of Robert Frank has been a defining style for me.
Q: What did he show you to make you get it so fast and what did he show you as a mentor?
A: When I met Ralph I was in New York making my first book. It’s quite a story. He was a huge figure in contemporary photography and I was loving his books. As it happened I met him and we became very close friends. He helped me do my first book. Everything he said to me at that point stuck because I was wide open. He was very influential. And he shot everything with a Leica. All these guys that I really admired like William Klein and Henri Cartier-Bresson all used the Leica. I didn’t immediately get it but I started to see. I probably went out and got a Leica. And I think there was probably a visceral sense that once I got that camera in my hand it felt so much better than a Nikon or whatever. It felt right. It’s almost like having a good guitar. It feels right. I found the rangefinder really easy to use. Easier than a reflex camera. Once I got one I basically never turned back. I was about three years into it when I met Ralph, got a Leica and went with it from there. I started with an M4 actually.
Q: Other than introducing you to the Leica, did he inspire you in any other way?
A: Absolutely. Before I knew him I was looking at his books. There was the sequence of his books. He would make this marvelous dream kind of sequence, very musical in a way, his actual visual signature, the way he was able to reduce things to the most significant parts of what they were. I guess you would call it metonymy, photographic metonymy. I thought this was very different. I thought he had the greatest eye out there, master work.
Q: So you studied his work?
A: Yeah. For a long time. It sort of opened up the possibility of seeing and looking at art. He had a way of reducing. It made it very compelling.
Q: One of the pictures in your portfolio looks like a streetwalker.
A: She is a transvestite. You can see everything is fake.
Q: You could think it looks like kind of sad, but there is so much exuberant energy in it that you smile.
A: Again I was on tour. I think we were in Marseille for about a week and I really liked it. I went out about midnight one night to see what I might shoot at night in the streets. And there were transsexuals around. I saw this person. I was nervous but the guy that was with me told her/him that I would like to take some photographs. We offered to pay them. She posed for a couple minutes and then basically went back to work.
Q: Did you use flash?
A: No I would shoot Delta 3200 and almost always shoot at 1.4, sixtieth of a second on film with a Leica M6.
Q: Perhaps the most enigmatic image in this portfolio is this image with the back of a nude young woman gazing at the jacket to an old Elvis record. What were you trying to communicate? What was on your mind at the time?
A: I don’t know. Without going deeper you’re just trying to create some sort of compelling image. Something that makes you want to look at it. I had these available girls so to say and also had this Elvis album cover and I thought about it. So I was shooting these girls and I got her to sit with it like that. I just made the picture from going from one thing to the other. There might have been some outtakes from that. Trying to find the juxtaposition of the Japanese girl with her naked back and the Elvis cover and it doesn’t make any kind of logical sense and I think that is what you are looking for. It’s ambiguous and surreal. We use the term street photography a lot but that isn’t what I’m doing. I’m looking for surrealism more than anything else. And I’ve had a lot of good responses in particular to that photograph.
Q: This picture of the drunken king really is an example of street photography.
A: That’s true. But it’s also kind of surreal. What is that guy doing sitting on the street with a crown on his head? If you’re out on the street taking pictures with your head full of photography and your eye completely turned on, you wouldn’t walk passed something like that and not take a picture. The reality is it was about 2 a.m. and he was sitting there. This was in Beijing and I was walking back to my hotel. He was just sitting there and he wasn’t moving. I was kind of creeping around him and I got several shots. He was fine.
Q: Was that shot on film? It looks grainy. Do you remember which lens or aperture you used?
A: Yes that was shot on film and shot on probably 3200. It was the 35 mm probably. I probably shot it at 1.4 at a sixtieth of a second. I could have gone down to a fifteenth or an eight of a second. To make sure I get it because you’re not always sure and with film you aren’t looking at anything on the back of the camera so you have to use your experience to know you got it.
Q: Do you have plans for another book?
A: I’d like to do another book. I think I’m getting really loaded now with all this stuff. I have so much stuff outside of what is in this show. I was thinking of a wonderful book from the sixties by Ed van der Elsken called “The Sweet Life” which is basically early 1960s or late 1950s and he is just going around the world shooting and I would like to do a book like that.
Q: What about gallery shows?
A: There are some upcoming. There will be one in LA next summer, Paris and LA. I’m probably going back to Shanghai and Beijing in March and doing a gallery there. So it goes on.
Thank you for your time, Andy!
– Leica Internet Team
See more of Andy’s work on his website.