In 1972, jazz legend Roy Ayers released “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby,” a hypnotic hymn to the people striving to survive in the County of Kings. Half a century later, photographer and 2022 Gordon Parks Foundation Fellow Andre D. Wagner casts his eye across a decade of work for the recent exhibition, New City, Old Blues.
Originally from Omaha, Nebraska, Wagner arrived in New York in 2012, and settled into Bushwick, Brooklyn. Over the next decade, he saw the predominantly Black and brown neighborhood become displaced under the relentless weight of gentrification. A community garden on a busy corner was razed, a new condominium building erected in its place. Within a decade, everything would change.
For Wagner, the path from social work to street photography has been “a beautiful evolution.” It was a natural progression to moving through the world, using the camera as a compass to record fleeting moments of intimacy, connection, and alienation unfolding around him.
“I never imagined my work springing out of the neighborhood where I lived but at the same time, being from the Midwest and being a person who feels at home in a community, it makes sense. I’ve always been a people’s person,” says Wagner, who sees the basic principles of respect, empathy, and connection at the soul of the work. In his hands, the camera creates a space for connection and shared intimacy.
Years in the making New City, Old Blues is equal parts love letter to the people of New York and the art of photography. Like the great Black American photographers of Kamoinge including Roy DeCarava, Ming Smith, Anthony Barboza, and Adger Cowans, Andre Wagner is driven by a passion for the streets, for a playing field unlike any other.
The Third Eye
Andre Wagner remembers reading Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography by Gordon Park and realizing it was possible to live and work as a photographer. “It gave me the confidence to think that this is a viable way of life,” he says.
Wagner would come full circle, standing on stage during the Gordon Parks Foundation Gala as a recipient of the Fellowship — just blocks away from the graduate school housing where he read the book a decade earlier.
“I don’t really feel like I chose photography, I feel like it chose me,” Wagner says of the extraordinary chain of events that brought him back to where it all began and staying the course without forcing results.
“I realized how the look in somebody’s eyes could tell a whole world of stories. Everybody has something they can tap into, and you are going to have your own experiences that shape how you perceive the world. As a street photographer, that’s where all these worlds collide,” Wagner says.
“Being from Omaha, growing up in the Black community, going to Iowa to play on the all white basketball team at an all white school and then in that same town, working as a social worker, doing juvenile court with at risk youth. Being in all these different spaces has given me like this empathy I feel in my body. Growing up as an athlete, street photography unlocked that physicality. It’s the best of all of these worlds kind of coming together.”
He’s a Superstar
In a time when social media has become a curated affair, Andre Wagner intermittently live-Tweeted printing photographs for New City, Old Blues over the course of a few weeks, bringing back the “Blog Era” vibe of the early 2010s. While many have decamped for primmer pastures, the unshaken remain, making the perfect audience for Wagner’s process story.
Printing in the darkroom brought back the physical labor of the work, of the detail and devotion required to create the perfect print, and of that distinct if intangible hand of the artist in the work itself.
“Having my hand in my work is important to me. It feels very intuitive and natural,” Wagner says. “The pictures themselves have ended up being big self portrait, literally and figuratively. When you’re pointing your camera at somebody else, or something else, it’s so revealing of yourself.”
Ultimately, it was about community and creating space for conversation among like-minded folks without the undue glare of large followings. The opening night reception at the Gordon Parks Foundation Gallery was very much the same, as some 300 people made the trip to in Pleasantville, New York.
“It was just incredible energy, a lot of photographers and people who were following my work and were really happy to experience this,” Wagner says. “It was really special to see a community come out for me.”
Andre D. Wagner: New City, Old Blues was on view at the Gordon Parks Foundation Gallery in Pleasantville, New York.