My friend and favorite photographer, Andre D. Wagner, just released his debut collection. It’s a monograph; it’s called Here For The Ride. My friend and favorite photographer, a bearded Bushwick brother by way of Omaha, Nebraska, has been cataloging New York City for the better part of the last decade and I think at this point it would be fair to say he’s become one of the city’s most prominent young photographers. He’s got a bunch of Instagram followers, The New York Times regularly features his work, and when we walk around the city together people often hiccup in their shoes to stop him and say, “Yo aren’t you Andre Wagner? PHOTODRE? I love your work, man, keep doing your thing.”
To me, however asinine, it feels appropriate and right. When we met he was living in a midtown, graduate school dorm-ish thing without a Leica or a single piece of furniture but even then you could sense from how he spoke about pictures, about photography, that notoriety and acclaim would only be a matter of time. He had this special way of looking at a scene — with one eye on the moment in front of him and another focused on how best to capture what the moment means — that separated his point of view from the beginning. I watched him put in the work. He woke up every morning, rain or shine, and scaled the city from one train to the next burning through film. He made the right friends, drowned himself in the history of photos and photographers, surrounded himself with people who could help inform the sensibility with which he wanted to manifest his images. He moved to Brooklyn, built a dark room in his strip kitchen, kept shooting.
So, these days, when folks refer to Andre Wagner as the street photographer or photojournalist in New York City you need to pay attention to, I nod and agree. Indeed, I have become one of those folks. Anytime someone asks me to direct them to poignant and meaningful picture taking, I point in Andre’s direction and say, “my boy is the most important street photographer and photojournalist of the now.”
Or, at least that’s what I used to say.
Andre doesn’t like being called a street photographer, much less a photojournalist. He’s so uncomfortable, in fact, that it became a serious point of argument when we were discussing the introduction for his book. Here For The Ride is many things, but at its core it’s the nuanced account of what goes overlooked underground in the greatest city on earth. And, as I was tasked with opening this debut, I thought it necessary to be explicit about the context through which he was doing his thing. “You’re telling the untold story of NYC,” I’d say. “You’re riding the trains and finding moments of worth — of pain and joy and basic fact — and transferring them to film. That’s street photography. That’s photojournalism.”
He wouldn’t budge.
“The whole genre thing, that shit is different,” he’d respond. “There are definitely photographers who do that work, and yeah, they’re amazing, I respect them or whatever but that’s not me.”
Now, I can be a pretty convincing motherfucker when I want to be. I’ve convinced some of the finest venues around to trade me money for poems. I convinced the Ivy League to let me in with Bs and an arrest record, convinced myself cocaine wasn’t the key to happiness, convinced an honest woman from the Bronx to love me. I still couldn’t convince Dre he was a street photographer or photojournalist though, even given that his art literally entails taking pictures on the street and his photos literally appear in one of the most famous newspapers in the world.
One weekend we went to my cabin in the Poconos for a work retreat; I pressed even harder. I leveraged his heroes against him — Roy DeGarava, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand — these were photographers humble enough to work within a framework their audiences could access and relate to. Didn’t he want to be someone MoMA or the Guggenheim could nominate as the torch to carry on the form? Didn’t he want to go down as one of the greats?
He still wouldn’t budge. “It’s just not how I want people to approach this book.” We battled and battled. I barbecued, we collected wood and built fires, I rolled things for us to smoke and we debated who the better point-guard-turned-artist was. Anytime I inched toward the concept of genre, his eyes would dim in genuine, shame-like disappointment.
It was after that stint in the woods that I ultimately gave in. I ended up writing a short, image-driven introduction and made no mention of street photography or photojournalism. I wrote only about his pictures, his lens, his unique way of finding the shot. I looked to Kerouac’s intro of Robert Frank’s classic collection The Americans, asked Dre a few culminating questions and did the best I could to honor his work without the crutch of my preferred, critique-like language.
Time passed, Here For The Ride was prepared for release, and Andre’s profile as a picture-man continued to grow. I’d be in San Francisco at a Starbucks with my girl and we’d buy the paper and there was Dre’s name. I’d be halfway through reading a feature on Sampha or Usher and notice it was Dre who took the portraits. I’d be in Boston or Milwaukee, mindlessly scrolling through my phone, about to step on stage to share some poems and the familiar black-and-white tint of a Wagner image would slide across my screen, the caption praising the photograph for its beautiful portrayal of Brooklyn youth. His photos were everywhere. The elation or exhaustion from Wall Street, smiling black boys and black girls from Andre’s block found me in whatever corner of the country I was in that day. My pops started to email me noting his triumphs. My mom bought a print.
Of course, any chance I got to ‘like’, retweet or otherwise co-sign these stepping stones of success, I would. It’s rare, you know, being able to say that one of your friends is carving out a reputation for himself in the lofty, elitist world of photography. Jumping at the opportunity to contribute felt important. I used my own network to amplify his progress. I roped him into my own projects wherever possible and continued to point folks looking for great photography in his direction.
Andre’s rise did another thing to me, though. It made me very conscious, particular, and aware of how I consume pictures. It made me consider why and from where I was receiving images on a daily basis. I began analyzing my relationship to photography as a whole — which stuff I liked; mostly which stuff I didn’t. With Dre’s work as a reference, I began calling out the homogenous portraiture of magazines. I started pointing to the cliché nature of photos that would glare up at me from the morning newsstands and lamenting the basic, predictable street photography that showed New York City’s homeless in the same downtrodden light.
Sometimes I would reach out to Dre on account of these frustrations. An iMessage brimming with hate for this swear-he-a-photographer guy, a phone call about why this one image I had seen was unappealing and straight up art-less. Here, he’d respond politically, on his reputable artist bullshit. Occasionally we’d meet and walk around the city, him taking his pictures and me smoking my cigarettes and maybe there would be an inclining of his own frustrations — his own version of “yeah, those people aren’t practicing photography for real” — but never anything substantial enough to latch on to.
And then the book dropped. Finally, after nearly eighteen months of talking about it and waiting and damn-is-this-really-going-to-happen, Here For The Ride became available for purchase.
We ended up hanging out downtown soon after and he gave me a rushed copy. No lie, it’s fucking incredible. I had seen drafts and helped with the sequencing, but man, having it in my hands and flipping through the pages reminded me of how each image was a picture-poem, screaming with life and bullish nuance. Christian Andersen (Creative Future) did a magnificent job with the printing and the whole thing vibes like the polished version of an actual subway ride. It’s truly unlike any photographic text I’ve seen before.
When we met after its release Andre handed me the book, thanked me for my introduction, and talked a little about the end of his summer. He had just gotten married, spent his honeymoon in Greece, and forgotten to bring me back a souvenir. We fell into our usual conversation over late afternoon, early autumn drinks — art, process, the unraveling life of making things in 2017. This lasted for a few more hours than we had planned, it always does, and then we said goodbye and I headed back up to Harlem, he back down to Bushwick.
On my ride uptown I opened the cover and re-read my introduction. I still wasn’t sure if I had done the book justice.
As the train rolled north of Times Square the pictures themselves forced me to look more closely, more lovingly at my fellow 2 train riders — but I was uneasy and pulled out my phone to start a text to Dre. I typed “still pissed you didn’t let me frame this within the context of street photography and photojournalism, bro. This intro is missing a critical undertone and I could have laced you with it.” I stared at the words for a minute, and then deleted the message without sending. I put the book away, closed my iMessage, navigated on the screen to Instagram. A rabbit-hole of brands and booty and photoshopped travel posts later, I was home.
I don’t make a living writing photographic commentary. What I do, gleefully and without remorse, is participate in a culture where image taking is so omnipresent that I’ve become unable to think about pictures as anything besides currency. As anything besides reposts and brand building and click bait. Photography — the at-large medium — has been sewn so firmly into the fabric of my world that to consider the fact someone might really be trying to tell stories with everyday imagery is a foreign concept. And because of this orientation I needed to call Andre’s work something that made sense to me. Street photography, photojournalism, anything that could be understood alongside the language our society has given me to describe picture taking.
As I exited the train and walked up Lenox, passing a group of tourists buried in their own bright-light devices, it clicked. This whole time I had been trying to package up Dre’s work into an aura and framework I’ve come to think is photography. Pictures as likes, pictures as singular things to attract or repulse, not plural moments. Don’t you get it, Miles?! What you are, what we with our Instagram posts and our Facebook profile pics are, are street photographers and photojournalists. Andre on the other hand is a storyteller grappling with the notion that his craft has been hijacked by an entire generation.
You should be thanking him, Miles, for never cutting corners and rearranging that framework. You should be in absolute awe that an artist, backed into a corner by our own lack of understanding, still found a way to get his message out there. And to think, you start the story whenever you please — he has to wait for the city to appear with his first page.
I guess it should be no surprise that he claims the book is his medium. It’s probably the last space left that allows for folks to experience the pictures in the way he sees them. He knows that journalism and street photography have become the de facto descriptors for his art, spurred by the fact that we’ve all been declared photographers by both the world and our own minds. What Dre does with his little box (the one he’s never caught without, the one dude had to be begged not to bring up with him to the alter last month) is present moments that are ripe with layered open-endedness. He forces you to reckon with the picture on his terms, and then shoots so that you’ll be more keen to your own politics and opinions as you look.
This book is a ride, not a recollection.
Andre Wagner’s work is to do more than merely shed light on people, places, and things — it’s to create new stories from frozen moments. His pictures take a split-second and bring that second to still-life. You need to buy this book. If you love pictures, if you love journeys, if you love New York City, you need to buy this book.
Here For The Ride is available for purchase at:
Website | Instagram
Website | Instagram