Andy Summers – A Certain Strangeness

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Review by Wayne Swanson 

Want to be a street shooter, traveling the world in search of decisive moments? Here’s one path to success: Join a rock band, get famous, tour the world, get bored staring at hotel-room walls between gigs, decide “Yeah — get a camera.”

It worked for Andy Summers, who played with a little band called the Police. The Nikon FE he bought in 1979 after his hotel-room epiphany ignited a passion for photography that has outlasted the Police. For Summers, music and photography have become partners that feed his desire to explore and improvise.

A Certain Strangeness is a compilation of Summers’ globe-trotting photography, created in conjunction with an exhibition at the Pavillon Populaire in France. The book focuses on his work out in the world, exploring his fascination with people, places, and moments in time. You won’t find much sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll debauchery here, other than a few glimpses of Sting and Police-era hotel-room antics interspersed with Summers’ introductory essay.

The introduction describes his artistic journey and explains how music, photography, and global street life are intertwined for him. Summers’ decision to become a serious photographer was not really just a whim. He first became entranced by the power of imagery as a teenager, watching art films at the local cinema. And he spent two summers working as a beach photographer, selling “snaps” to tourists.

Traveling with the Police gave him exposure to the world that few people have the chance to match. Once he bought his Nikon and started prowling the streets, he also became a serious student of photography, studying the works of masters like Kertész, Cartier-Bresson, Arbus, Frank, and Winogrand. All of those influences, as well as those of cinematic heroes like Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa, can be seen in the book.

Summers’ work might best be described as artful street photography. He has a quirky eye that searches for contrasts, humor, the absurd, and the occasional Ingmar Bergman moment. There’s a cinematic feel that sets a scene and invites narrative speculation. The palette is dark, and the tone is on the road to noir.

The book presents black-and-white photographs he has taken over the years and around the world. Images are paired in an improvisational manner, mixing scenes from different times and places that share similar elements or present interesting counterpoints. There’s a certain strangeness, but it’s subtle rather than in-your-face.

The book title is apt because the images create a quietly surreal world. Summers understands the formal elements that make a good photo, and then looks for “whatever might throw in an unexpected element, like an outside note in a guitar chord.” Or to put it another way, “How would Thelonious Monk take a photograph?”

Summers’ introduction makes it clear that photography is a true passion for him. A Leica has replaced his Nikon, but he continues to travel the world to perform and make photographs. “Maybe it is a strange idea or madness to find enjoyment wandering down a back alley in Hanoi or Macau or the Golden Gia in Shinjuku just to see if there’s something of interest, but that is the magic of photography, the power to pull you into experience that you might not get any other way.”

A Certain Strangeness takes you on an engaging tour of Summers’ idiosyncratic photographic world.

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A Certain Strangeness, Andy Summers

Photographer/musician/artist: Andy Summers, born Poulton-le-Fylde, England,resides Los Angeles, California

Publisher: University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, copyright 2019

Preface: Philippe Saurel; essays: Andy Summers, Gilles Mora

Text: English

Hardcover book, sewn binding, black-and-white lithography, 160 pages with 184 images, 10.5 x 9.5 inches, printed in Italy

Photobook designer: Nicholas Hubert

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