Why Andy Summers Sees His Photos Sort of Like Songs
Summers' solo career has included just about everything from full-length albums to scoring for films to collaborations with the likes of Robert Fripp and John Etheridge. Another of his primary passions is photography, initially sparked when he was a teenager travelling around Europe. Over the years, Summers' work has been both exhibited in galleries around the world, as well as collected in books.
His newest publication is A Series of Glances from teNeues Publishers. It includes photos from his trips to places like Morocco, China, Brazil and Bolivia, with narratives told visually through Summers' lens.
The way Summers sees it, there's a great deal of similarity between his photographic and musical work. Both seek to evoke human emotion, both attempt to tell a story or introduce a person in an artistic fashion. Eventually, Summers tells UCR, he'd like to extend his photography into the realm of film, and has already written a few potential scripts.
For now, he's incorporating some of his photographs into a current tour, The Cracked Lens + The Missing String, which finds Summers performing in various smaller venues across North America. "One thing about the U.S.," he says, "is that there are all these 100-year-old theaters, all over the country, and they all seem to be good shape. It's quite amazing, actually."
UCR spoke with Summers about his new book, his escapades with John Belushi and his advice for aspiring photographers.
See Images From Andy Summers' 'A Series of Glances'
The majority of the photos in this book are black and white. Was that intentional or was that just the kind of film you had at the time?
I essentially was a black-and-white photographer, you know, because that's where I started with it. And back when I really got going with it, black and white was still the artistic version of photography. Color was — it took years to be accepted as a serious medium, it wasn't regarded as art, whereas black and white was. I mean, if you go back in time, you start with people like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was a huge influential French photographer, everything is black and white – and that's what I grew up with. I grew up looking at European arthouse films that were all black and white. So that was sort of in me. It was very natural.
I noticed there's a good number of photos in which the subject either has their back turned to you, or in some way doesn't know they're being photographed. How much of that theme was purposeful and what does it mean to you?
It's an interesting point, because — I mean, if you're out on the street taking photographs, you're in a sort of subversive position. You know, I'm not talking like "Hey, I'm a pop star!" You're not doing that. You're like, sort of creeping around dressed in black, and you kind of keep the camera on your arm, and then you go [makes camera shutter sound]. They're looking the other direction. So of course, it's much more difficult to put the camera in someone's face and get a full on, front facial picture than it is to creep up behind somebody and pop a picture. So there is a preponderance to shooting people from behind. You know, I even noticed that. 'Don't shoot another person from behind,' I just started sort of saying that to myself so I don't end up at the end of the day with just pictures of the back of people's heads.
But then the people who do know you're taking their photo appear really pleased and excited about it. Especially the kids.
Yeah, well, there's plenty of them – and it's probably because I've been around them for a few minutes and talked to them. I've done it all over the world, so I feel like I've managed to balance it out, but I think it's sort of inherently more difficult to do. Some people are okay with it, and it varies from country to country. You know, if you're trying to do it in Morocco, they don't want to know at all. They don't want you to take their picture.
Have you been taking photos on this current tour?
I hope to do it. I walked out in somewhere, like Boston, and managed to shoot a few pictures. I normally would do that, but it's a balance. In my case, if you're playing that night, I don't want to wear myself out – like getting so excited by doing photography I can barely play. You know, parcel it out. You learn these things as you go along, you have to measure your own ability to do this much. Most people don't go out and take photographs in the street and then go and do a concert. That's not normal.
You mention in the book the couple of magic mushroom-fueled days in the early '80s you spent with John Belushi in Asia. What do you remember about that experience?
It's a bit hazy. [Laughs] We had a real laugh, it was a real adventure. So, magic mushrooms were on sale. In fact, I think I'm going to include this [in the show] because I tell the story in the show, and everybody [goes] "Oh that's really funny." And I've actually got the photographs to back it up, you know, pictures of John with the magic mushroom sign and all this crazy stuff that we did for a few days. Yeah, I remember it very fondly. It was a kind of special moment. We were hanging out for a while before we all moved off to other places.
Listen to Andy Summers' Instrumental Version of 'Message in a Bottle'
There's just one picture of you in the book. You're sitting at the breakfast table with a broken pair of sunglasses on. Who took that?
I took it! I carried a tripod. So I could put the camera on a tripod and I had a long lead plugged in to the camera, and just take the picture. I kind of got it down. I mean, it was slightly guesswork. I probably had to move it a few times, but that's exactly what I was doing. I even did it live on stage for a while in England, but it got to be too much. I was playing [and] I was trying to take a photograph. It got a little bit crazy.
I've heard you speak before about a good photo having a "hook," not unlike a hit song. Have you always viewed your photography and your music as being connected in some way?
Yeah, there are a lot of terms that cross over. I think all great art should be musical in quality. I certainly think that about writing. You know, if I'm reading various books, which is sort of nonstop, I think at some level I'm looking for a musical quality in the way the sentence is laid out, the phrasing. And with photography, a lot of the terms of music translate across into light, line, shape, form, what you don't put in, so on and so forth. You're trying to give a photograph a quality that's musical, like a great chord you might find on guitar. There's a resonance to it which could be a little bit more out there, or really straight ahead.
I mean, there's a lot of ways you can look at that. These are broad terms that may apply or may not apply. Like, if you were in a hotel, like I often am, and you're shooting the walls and the bathroom for whatever reason, what's the musical equivalent of that? [Laughs] Because I was doing that on this last trip. I sort of got into, like, shooting the hotel rooms. I always take pictures of the bedside I'm in in the hotels. It's just an ongoing thing, like a series that one day. I'm not quite sure what to do with it yet, but there may come a time where I can lay it out. And I started to shoot in color and I started to get into the most bland, boring subject matters, and like I was building up this whole sort of catalog of boring hotel shots on purpose. They may be boring, or they may be not. It depends how you use them.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pick up photography?
Well, A) enjoy it, have fun with it. I mean, we're now in an era where you can shoot so much stuff. Try to make your vision you're seeing more sophisticated by like, seeing how you can come at an ordinary subject and make it compelling or interesting by the way you shoot it. It's just like practicing the guitar or any instrument, you have to work at it. You have to develop your sophistication for visual seeing, and I think you have to study other people. I mean, when I started out, I looked at so many photography books and sort of thought about: Why is that really great? And as you go on, your sophistication grows. So you can learn to take a good photograph, just technically a straightforward photograph, then you can start to get a little bit more into artistic photography, and then into your own personal statements. I mean, it will take years to develop, but you have to love it and look at the right things and work at it a bit.
I've got some lightning round questions here. First, if you could work with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
Well, probably Bach. [Laughs] Or Miles Davis, people like that. Maybe Joni Mitchell.
What is your favorite song to play live?
"Message in a Bottle."
You're stranded on a deserted island and can only have three albums with you. What are they?
God, that's very difficult. Well, let's say Kind of Blue, Miles Davis. Probably something from [fellow jazz great Thelonious] Monk. Maybe some Bach cello suites. There wouldn't be any pop music because it just wouldn't last. You'd go out of your mind. You have to have sort of immortal music if you were ever in that situation, and you never know.