Photographer Andre D. Wagner is ‘Here for the Ride’
Documenting life on the NYC Subway
Photographer Andre D. Wagner never thought his interest in people would lead him to a path documenting life on the streets of New York. Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Wagner moved to New York in 2011 to pursue a degree in social work. He was drawn to finding out what makes human moments and how they play out in public life. Shortly after moving to the city, he fell in love with photography for that same reason, inspired by street life and the stream of visual consciousness that is New York City. Once he decided to pursue photography full time he never looked back.
His first book Here for the Ride, invites us down into the New York City subway, a space where life is lived in public and moments pass faster than you can say watch the closing doors. “I was interested in those fleeting moments,” says Wagner. “The subway is a very public space. Something we all share together.” Shooting black and white film, Wagner captures images that are both lyrical and tender, people loving, living and surviving in public.
Looking at his work calls to mind the words of photographer Bruce Davidson, whose seminal book Subway is considered a classic. “I see the subway as a metaphor for the world in which we live today. From all over the earth, people come into the subway,” he says. “It’s a great social equalizer. As our being is exposed, we confront our mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast.”
Brooklyn-based Wagner, 31, is a former college basketball player with a very particular world view. He develops all his own photographs, taking time with the printing process, something rare in today’s Instagram-driven world. From his street photography to intimate portraits of celebrities including Usher and Dev Hynes, Wagner’s career has only just begun. Here, he talks to us about his work and his experience creating his first book project.
Your new book Here For The Ride focuses on the people of New York as they ride the subway. What inspired the project?
I didn’t set out to do a subway project. I used to work in a photo studio and I would get off work and get on the subway and it just really inspired me to look and notice details and interactions and just life. The subway is tricky to photograph though. I like when moments are fleeting. It’s a really interesting thing to photograph. The subway has this interesting dynamic where it’s so fleeting but also stagnant at the same time. .I didn’t grow up with life happening out in the open so photographing the subway was exploring something unique and a way to explore those fleeting moments.
What made you want to become a photographer?
When I moved to New York I was going to school at Fordham University to get my Master of Social Work. I was always interested in people and what made human beings do and say the things I’ve come to document. I never really thought about being a photographer but it just kind of evolved naturally. Initially, I was really inspired by Gordon Parks but I also fell in love with the works of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Roy DeCarava and just set out to learn everything I could.
Speaking of Garry Winogrand, you’re often compared to him for shooting a certain type of street photography. Do you like the comparison or is it too easy?
I’m definitely honored and am inspired by his history but at the same time, our two worldviews are so different. He was a white Jewish man from the city and I’m a black man that came from the Midwest. I’m not really interested in nostalgia. I don’t shoot black and white to emulate any style. I just like monotone because of the richness of the look and feel and that feels very natural to me.
You shoot film and have a very intentional process with the darkroom etc… Can you talk about this and also tell us what you shoot with?
I’m an old head. I shoot with a Leica M6 or M2 film camera. I have that on me all the time. It’s my second eye. I shoot film and then develop in my darkroom at home. I also collect photo books. I look at my books more than I look at Instagram. I love to walk outside and just observe and absorb. I’ll make contact sheets and really enjoy that entire process.
What do you love about street photography?
I just love to walk outside and capture moments I feel are beautiful or important or just different and the city is a big inspiration. Being from Omaha, it’s rare that people are out in the street very often. When I moved to New York, it was like wow life is being lived right here in front of each other’s eyes and that was such a powerful thing. You can feel it when you look at photographs and I find that a powerful form of expression. Overall, I don’t like the term street photographer because I just feel like a photographer. I don’t want any additional titles or descriptions. I just want the work to speak for itself.
Photographing New York can be challenging and there is definitely the inside/outsider dynamic to consider when doing documentary style photography of a city like New York. What has been your experience?
Well, moving to New York was a defining experience. Here I was a young black male and the first person to go to college in my family. I played basketball in college for two years and, my last 2 years I was the only Black person on the team. So I definitely understand the whole insider/outsider dynamic. But I also just do the work. Basketball really prepared me to be focused and that helped me with photography. It’s a whole lifestyle. Your schedule, the food you eat, the way you train. Once my basketball career came to an end, I became obsessed with photography and put all that same discipline and focus into photography.
Talk about the role music plays in your photography practice. What are you inspired by?
I listen to a lot of jazz but also J. Cole and Kendrick. I probably listen to too much Kendrick. I want my photos to hit as much as Kendrick’s Damn. There’s still so much nuance but it’s got so much depth. There’s a rhythm to the street and I use inspiration from sounds and beats to create that same feeling.
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Book available HERE.