Andre D. Wagner is passionate about observing the social landscape of New York, sometimes stepping out with his camera 15 hours at a time. The Brooklyn-based photographer chronicles the poetry and nuances of everyday life among hurried New Yorkers. Wagner’s interpretation of the world surrounding him is in stark contrast to how we naturally view it in color. His use of black-and-white imagery isn't just for dramatic effect. It's his way of conveying the present in the only way he knows how—authentically.
Wagner's ability to capture candid moments and direct our attention to the subtleties we often miss in our daily lives is why we hand-picked him to appear on the cover of A3 Mag's 'The Dreamer Issue.' The inaugural issue also features images personally selected by Wagner for the "Beginner’s Mind" photo essay. The theme of the essay borrows concepts from the ancient Zen Buddhism practice, Shoshin. It refers to adopting a beginner's mindset, being present in the moment, and seeing the possibilities in life.
"Dreaming about the possibilities embodies so much of my own spirit and outlook on life. I have almost 10 years of experience in street photography, and I still feel like a beginner tapping into my potential. I'm a student of the game, always trying to learn."
While Wagner might think of himself as a newbie photographer, his resume says otherwise. He boasts commissions from legacy publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and ESPN. His first monograph, Here For the Ride, was published by Creative Future in 2017. Soon after, his work caught the attention of famed director Melina Matsoukas. She tapped Wagner to photograph and develop the lead campaign images and key art for Lena Waithe's first feature film, Queen & Slim. Yes, Wagner is the brilliant mind behind the lens of the visually arresting movie poster. He's also gearing up to release his latest book project, New City, Old Blues.
In an exclusive interview with A3 Magazine, Wagner opens up about his journey from social work to "making pictures" for Hollywood and how legendary photojournalist Gordon Parks influenced his career. Plus, he reveals what it means to live as a dreamer while documenting reality.
A3 Mag: First off, congrats on making the cover of our 'Dreamers' issue! What does it mean for your work to be recognized and to select the photos featured in the "Beginner’s Mind" photo essay?
Andre D. Wagner: It's an honor. It’s really dope. When I started, I was just a young black dude with a camera. That’s all I had...just extracting from what's out there. I was going through [the photo essay], thinking of the theme of having that beginning energy before you get bogged down. I wanted images that were fresh, surprising, and energetic.
Speaking of your start, you're originally from Omaha, Nebraska, and attended school in Iowa. What inspired you to move to the East Coast and pursue photography? When I was in college, I had a hard time figuring out what I wanted to do. I was always artistic, but I didn’t know anything about art or artists. I’m a people person, so someone suggested I do social work. As a [college] basketball player, kids naturally wanted to be around me. With my personality, social work made sense and was a natural fit. But as an athlete, I always wanted to be in control of my own destiny.
I moved to New York to get my master's [degree] in social work. I started meeting artists and going to galleries and museums. New York turned my whole world upside down. Once I discovered art and photography, I was wowed by the power of it all and all these possibilities started to open up. Seeing Gordon Parks' work changed my life. After my first year of grad school, I got a job at a studio working in e-commerce for a company called Fab.com. They sold everything. I would have to photograph tabletop products, architecture, fashion, etc. It [working at Fab.com] helped me to educate myself, learn the business, and work with different people. I’ve been taking pictures ever since.
How'd you get introduced to Gordon Parks' iconic photos? When I first moved here, I was living in Manhattan on Billionaires Row and photographing for a poetry collective. One of the guys who ran the collective gave me Gordon Parks' autobiography, which, ultimately, influenced me.
Parks, as you know, was a master at examining and capturing the Black experience. How do you see your art shaping discussions on race, class, and community?
I believe in the power of art and photography. With the images I’m making, conversations I’m having, and communities I’m photographing, I would love for my art to move people and be a voice for change. I don’t see my photographs only sitting in the sphere of serious conversations. I want my work to be used to impact society. The essence of photography is sharing. If I can use my photography for the greater good, then that’s amazing.
Do you see your art as activism in bringing about this societal change?
As a creator, that's hard for me to claim, because I know real activists are out here. People refer to me as a 'photographic social worker.'
We agree with that label, given your background and natural ability to connect with people. Is that why you found your voice in street photography, which, at its core, involves taking candid photos of strangers?
When I moved to New York and started in photography, I was initially interested in portraiture. But I got to the point where I was tired of waiting to meet up with somebody and to have a subject. I just wanted to make work whenever I felt like it. I slowly started gravitating to making pictures on the street while roaming around the city. I liked exploring, and New York is visually stimulating. I had no clue there was a whole genre of street photography and that people make work just by going out into the world.
I think street photographers do well if they're obsessive. Going out onto the streets and making pictures is so hard to do. You really have to have discipline to do it. You can’t just visit a place one time and come out with great pictures.
Would you say that authenticity is a part of your discipline? If so, why is it important to stay true to yourself and your artistry when documenting the Black community?
In my day-to-day practice as Black photographer, it’s important for me to be honest and present. Sometimes you think of these big words and ideas like longevity, community, and representation—but it all comes down to staying true to my craft and holding on to something real. The documentation is just a byproduct of talking to people. Outside, I jump into conversations and just become part of the fabric of the place. I’m more of an active person in the community, rather than an observer. When people can feel that you’re part of who they are and part of the place, I can get more authentic pictures that way. It's easy to go out there because it’s what I love to do. I’m so much of my full self with a camera.
Right! You move around the city a lot, capturing the urban landscape. How has the pandemic and stay-at-home orders affected your ability to photograph people and everyday street-life?
As a photographer, I’m able to present so much through my body language, face, eyes, and expression. Today, the mask is such a barrier. It's hard for people to really see you.
And yet, you manage to truly see people, even without a camera. Does your passion for exploring and seeing the beauty in the ordinary inform your perspective as a photographer?
As far as finding my own perspective, I’m indebted to so many great photographers. There's so much great work out there. But I’m also super obsessive. Before Queen & Slim, no one was checking for me. I’d be able to go outside anytime. When you work that much, you’re bound to start tapping into your uniqueness and how your eye sees the world. For a long time, I only worked with one camera and one lens. I tried to master one way of working. There are definitely limitations to that, but I was able to build something so strong and lose myself in the work. There's something about making time to be outside that’s real rewarding...just being a witness to life. Feeling like I’ve been blessed with a gift and I’m able to use that. That obsession has helped my vision.
Speaking of vision, what principles, would you say, guide your work and creative process?
When I moved here, I asked myself, what is my responsibility to this place and to these people? I just moved here, but there is so much history in this place. I was guided by those questions. Sometimes I’m led by work, like changes in the neighborhood or what I’m responding to personally and emotionally. I try to be honest with myself and be true to the craft and what I'm doing. Sometimes that speaks back to me and guides me. I don’t always have ideas for a project, but one thing leads to the next.
In terms of what's next, is there anything you'd like to accomplish that you haven't already?
There are projects I want to do in the future, like go back to where I’m from in Omaha, and photograph and retrace my steps. As a Black man with a camera, I want to travel the country document a road trip.
You've spent so much of your time immortalizing moments and capturing memories for others. How do you want you and your photos to be remembered, specifically as an archive/street photographer?
This world has opened up so much for Black photographers. I think about the photographers that I’ve studied who didn’t have the resources we do now. I’m trying to understand where we come from but also understand the times.
I find it important to be of [the present]. Documenting the now is in front of our face. With this type of [street] photography, it lends itself to time. As soon as it's removed, people appreciate it. Like Jamel Shabazz, he’s constantly putting out work from his archives of Black life, of a whole different time period. It's amazing! People love that work, but I bet when he was making those pictures, hardly anyone cared. Now we see the value 15 to 20 years later, with a little more understanding. People may not see everything right now, but when things are removed and not so accessible, people will appreciate it then. I’m thinking about the longevity of my work, how I want my work to live, and the conversations I want to have with my work.
You know we can't end this interview from 'The Dreamer Issue' without asking what advice you'd give to fellow Black dreamers and creatives?
If you feel something in your soul, go for it! Sometimes we wait for an articulate path forward and it's not always there. Seek out people who can help, and give you some knowledge. It’s all doable.
This mentality refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconception.
When one has a beginner’s mind, one is present to see the infinite possibilities.
A true dreamer mentality. Meet the dreamers through Andre D. Wagner’s eyes.