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.” His bestselling biography, “One Train Later,” was turned into the film “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Released in July, his latest solo music project is a new instrumental collection titled “Metal Dog.”
Andy’s exhibition “Del Mondo” recently opened up at the Leica Gallery São Paulo, the first ever Leica gallery in South America, and runs through October 5, 2015. The exhibit is comprised of forty-two black and white images that show the artist’s life in photographs captured from around the world – from Tanzania to Shanghai. We spoke with Andy when the exhibit was at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles in this part 1 and part 2 interview and in advance of the opening in São Paulo. We had the opportunity to talk to Andy while he was in São Paulo to get more insight into “Del Mondo” and his photographic approach.
Q: Give us a quick rundown of what you’re doing in Brazil on this trip.
A: I’m currently back in Brazil and I’m doing a lot of things this time like playing concerts (I think we have nine shows), my autobiography is being released, and my Del Mondo exhibit opened at the brand new Leica Gallery São Paulo, which is the first Leica Gallery in South America. I opened it, so it’s a happy day for me.
Q: For those who don’t know anything about the Del Mondo exhibit, why should they come, and what will they expect to see?
A: Why should they come? Why shouldn’t they come? Of course, they should come. The reason I did this? For one, it’s called Del Mondo “of the world.” When they opened Leica Gallery Los Angeles, where I live, it was all “Leica, Leica, Leica” at the time. That was really the idea because, obviously, for many years I’ve travelled all over the world, which is a big inspiration for me for photography. Usually when I’m at home, I don’t have time, to photograph, as I’ve got so many other things. When I go out to Asia — China, Nepal, and places like that — I photograph a lot. So it was sort of like, “Okay. It’s Leica. It’s the world.” That was the idea. A celebratory look at the Leica camera and photography, and so I had that show ready to go from L.A., and now we’ve brought it to Brazil.
Q: And what does it mean to you to have all 42 images at the first Leica Gallery in South America?
A: Well, it’s very meaningful. There’s a little backstory behind this because Louis from Leica Camera and I have been trying to put a show together for a few years now, and trying to find the right situation. Initially, we were supposed to open this show last November, but due to various complications, we didn’t open when we thought. However, it’s turned out to be very good that it all happened this August in 2015 because I have a lot of profile. I’m doing shows, I have this book out, I’ve got a movie out, and at the same time, we’ve come to open this first gallery in South America. I like that.
Q: How was the opening?
A: The opening here at the Leica Gallery São Paulo was amazing. Completely packed.
What we would call a mob scene– It was very enjoyable and it was great for me to see so many people, and see my pictures on the wall. To me, I guess it’s the photographic realm of doing a concert. You know, there you are. It’s just a different set up. I mean we had my new CD playing and everything, and it was very friendly. You might feel good from it.
Q: So the images are from you travels from around the world from 1978-2014?
A: Little bit later. I mean, I started getting serious about photography in late ’79. I never stopped basically, and then I was traveling all the time with The Police. In those days, I photographed literally everything — all the life of the band, all the places I went to, and I ended up making a book out of that, the first one, and doing some photography shows. I got into this thing of photography -actually making books, and doing shows, and being a photographer, and progressing onwards with it, and always learning, and always studying, and continuing to photograph, and it never left. It’s not like the band stopped, and then I stopped doing photography. It was a natural interest creative interest that I found inspiring.
Q: Can you share the story about when you bought your first camera with us?
A: When I got my first camera, I think on a rainy day in New York, we were becoming a very hot item at that point. You know, I think we were already number 1 in the UK and America was catching on fast. Photographers surrounded us, literally, all the time. Some you would start to be friends with, and one of them took me down to B&H Photograph in New York, and that’s where I bought my first camera. In fact, it was a Nikon! I shouldn’t say that in the Leica Gallery, but it was. At that time, a little bit later on, of course, it was Ralph Gibson that turned me onto Leica. You know, it was like, “ah, this is the right guitar. This is the right instrument for me.” And then I became a Leica devotee.
Q: You’re a big fan of Ralph Gibson. Are there any other photographers you admire?
A: It’s true. You know, Ralph made a great impression on me in the early days, and I was looking at a lot of photography books, and all the classics. You know, Cartier-Bresson and so on, and so forth, and filling my head with knowledge of photography and visual imagery. I came across Ralph’s early work on the Lustrum Press in the early ‘80s and was very impressed by it, by the sense of abstraction, and also the sense of music in it. I thought, “That’s sort of where I want to go.” Somehow it came towards me as music, as well as photography. Of course, eventually we met and it turned out he’s a total music freak. We started a great friendship. Most of the photographers I have been drawn to are American photographers: Lee Friedlander, Dwayne Michaels, Diane Arbus, and William Klein. More American sensibility, I think. European photographers like Cartier-Bresson, who sort of started the whole thing. Actually, Swiss photographer Robert Frank probably made the biggest impression on me of all, and is probably my favorite photographer. So really it’s Robert Frank that changed the course of photographic history with that one book, and remains printed in my head.
Q: Would you say photography is like another artistic expression for you? You’ve got the guitar, and now it’s another outlet.
A: Absolutely. It’s another way to express yourself. It’s different from music, but I think you can translate from one to another. They both can inform one another. My main creative information has always come from music, but through learning how to construct, compose, lines, shape, color… it’s the same thing. It’s obviously the most abstract of the arts, but you can take those musical terms and maybe bring them to another medium. Same thing in writing. I always look for music in writing. Some writers have it, and some don’t.
Q: On the road, a lot of your images come from off-beaten paths. How did you find those off-beaten paths, and what makes travel an interesting subject matter for you?
A: I guess I’m sort of a travel junkie. That’s my life; I’ve always been moving, and even if I don’t have to go somewhere, I’m probably going to go somewhere. The last three years, I’ve been going to China, Tibet, and pretty much everywhere in Asia at this point. Within these places, what I’m always trying to avoid is anything having to do with tourists. You’re looking for compelling visual images. I don’t go out of my way to photograph Asian cultures. I’m looking for what might make a powerful photograph. I’ve very much got the photographic consciousness when I’m doing that. That’s really the main thing that’s in my mind. When you’re doing it, you start waking up. Your mind’s eye starts to become more and more alive, and I’m seeing everything very visually.
Everything is a photograph. It’s great. I really like being in that zone. Over the years, in being in these places, I’ve learned a few techniques. For instance, filming what they call “minority” peoples because it can be very sensitive whether you can get up close to them or not. Just funnily enough, this last trip to western China, I was around very poor and minority peoples, and one of the very easy ways to get friendly with them is to come up to them with cigarettes, and offer them one, and they all want to smoke. If you bring up Marlboro, like an American cigarette, it’s an icebreaker. Then you start talking, and finally you’re going to be allowed to take the picture; or you can always pay them, of course. But you can be friendly with them and give them something, and then you start to get a little report going. That’s something you have to learn. You can’t just walk in and brutally take a picture. You find your techniques with it, and hopefully get a good picture. I actually took some killer pictures on this last trip using cigarettes, which is a new one for me.
Q: It’s interesting too that all of your photography is in black-and-white. What draws you to black-and-white photography?
A: I think, first of all, I was so influenced by European films and French films when I was a kid, that they had a big emotional impact on me in the formative years when you’re trying to become a person. You don’t know who you are, and you’re a confused teenager… all these films had a big impact on me, and I tried to recreate that later.
So I’ve always found black and white more truthful and much more powerful photography. If you look at the history of photography, photography is black and white. That’s how it started. In the first 100 years, it was black and white. Color came in very late in the day, and it was generally looked down upon in photography as a very inferior… that was for tourists or amateurs. It wasn’t really until the 1970s in New York and America with maybe William Eggleston, who started making dyed transfer prints, and you start to really enrich and saturate the color, and then color photography got to be taken seriously. I’d say prior to 1970, it wasn’t taken seriously at all. But for me, I came out of studying all the great photographers that all shot in black and white, and it sort of stays there for me. I never had a great desire to move on to color. In fact, if I go out on a trip and I start to try to shoot color, I switch to black and white because it confuses the issue. Because then my head stays right there, and I know what I’m doing.
Q: What do you consider your photography? You don’t consider it street photography, and that kind of sounds documentary. Possibly it’s been called portraiture, too. How do you consider it?
A: My quest is always to be non-generic. I don’t really want it to fall into any comfortable category. That’s always people in the outer world, who in retail, that have to put a name on something. Art is beyond that. Certainly in music, I seek to do that, and the same in photography. I don’t think of what I do as street photography at all. I tend to shoot in the outer world. I don’t do set-ups and studio shootings with models, and lights, and all that, and you get one photo. I don’t do that. I like adventure. I like being in the backstreets of Hanoi or Hong Kong or wherever. That’s where I get excited. The whole thing gets me going, and I feel like I’m out there with the camera, and I’m watching out that I don’t get killed, or I’m trying to get people to come and be photographed. It’s always sort of thrilling, exhausting. You know I was in Hong Kong recently, and I was in some pretty dodgy spots. You go and do that for maybe like 3 hours at a stretch, and then you’re absolutely wiped out because it’s intense. There’s an intensity like you’re looking and trying to photograph and trying to think straight, and not make mistakes with the camera, and get the shot, and you didn’t get it quite right. So you’re completely mentally engaged. It’s a sort of heightened living experience. It’s nearly 100 degrees and high humidity. You see one photograph on the wall, and you know how it was done, and that there’s an incredible story behind it.
Q: One thing that comes across with your images, especially in the books, is that it doesn’t look like you hold much back. Your life as you see it, whatever is involved, you just photograph it and share it. So, is that a photographic truth or just a visual journal for you? Or do you hold back stuff, and we just haven’t seen that part?
A: Photography for me is a number of things. It’s extremely personal; it’s what I like. Like most photographers, careers are made by editing. You show what you want to show, which is the stronger stuff. You don’t show everything. It’s not like home movies time. These are the photographs that go together, and these are the best ones. You can make some statement about the world if you want to, or you say these are the more artistic photographs. I think it’s a combination of these things. Audience number one. It’s the same with music. I make music for me first. I’m not making it for somebody out there before me. It’s the same with photography. I’m trying to knock myself out.
Q: It’s been said that you can see music and movement in your images, too. Can you share with us your view on the relationship between music and photography?
A: I think there is a relationship between music and photography. I mean, I think all the arts relate to one another in a way. I think if you’re going to be a person that’s going to discipline yourself to be good at one of these things, music, writing, art, painting, whatever. If you really work, you bring your sensibilities artistically to a place that eventually you might be able to transfer them. So, I came to photography loaded with music and studied it for thousands of hours, many, many thousands of hours on playing and practicing, and all that. So you can’t say necessarily at first how it transfers, but that you’ve made yourself into this person that’s got these sensibilities that will come across one way or another into another medium. I mean, if you put it more simply like music into photography okay… You’ve worked with line …
I’ll say something about music directly into photography. In music, you’ve obviously got shape, harmony, line, clusters, various terms that you would apply to music. You go with the visual, you’re definitely going to see shape. You’re going to see line, light. You’re going to express light musically. You can express darkness with harmony by the way you put chords together. This is very abstract, but I think that one informs the other. I came to photography completely loaded with music. All my creative information comes from playing music for so many years, so it’s in me. When I go to writing or photography, I’m looking for the condition of music. I look for the music in any of the arts because it’s the most abstract quality. If I’m reading a book, I’m looking for prose that’s got a musical quality. So I think it’s probably what I look for in photography, and that’s why I got attracted to Ralph Gibson’s work, and found out later, of course, that he’s completely into music. It all makes sense. I mean I could say, okay, you’re a photographer and you’ve got absolutely tone-deaf ears, and you’ve got no feeling for music or literature. Maybe you won’t be such a good photographer. So it’s an open ended question. I don’t know, but I think it’s a very nice idea that these things can transfer. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be brilliant at everything, but you’ll have some way towards it at least by taking another form.
Thank you for your time, Andy!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Andy on his website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.