Take the J Train
I can’t quite remember the first time I encountered one of Andre D. Wagner’s photographs. It might have been during an afternoon perusing Instagram. It might have been during one of my many conversations with friends about exciting young photographers. Or maybe I read an early profile of the Brooklyn-based photographer. But, I’m not upset that I can’t recall that specific moment. Which is to say that, somehow, Wagner’s images feel as if they have always been here, inviting viewers to marvel at the quiet beauty of even the most familiar scenes.
Wagner’s photographs emit a sonic vibration that pulsates beyond the eye as he captures scenes from New York—particularly his neighborhood of Bushwick, the streets of SoHo, and the subway—that move toward a poetic vision of the city and its residents. The Omaha, Nebraska, native, who has a background in social work, tells me that taking photographs is always part of his daily regimen. And although he has a studio, you’ll rarely find Wagner shooting inside. Instead, his thousands of recent images are the result of hours-long city strolls. Last summer during a break from work, I walked past Wagner in SoHo as he watched the crowds pass by, camera in hand. Caught up in the chaos of tourists, it took me a few seconds to recognize him, but I’m sure he saw me before we eventually said hello—his eye somehow able to find a center in the busy New York shopping storm. He is nothing if not an artist who knows how to find a moment’s kinetic energy.
His debut monograph, Here for the Ride (2017), invites us to look closely at the environ of the city’s vast subway system. Here for the Ride is comprised of sixty-two black-and-white images that were taken over a three-year period, primarily along the J train, the line off which Wagner lives. It’s a line that starts in the capitalist heart of the city, the Financial District, and then runs eastward through Brooklyn and Queens, across some of New York’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods. In the wrong hands, such a story might be reduced to clichés of pity, of voyeurism. Resisting didactic social commentary, Here for the Ride offers us a world unto itself that hums with intimacy and possibility: a daughter leaning on her mother’s shoulder, caught in a moment of rest, or two showtime dancers intertwined in their choreography.
Wagner is not the first photographer to position the New York City subway as subject in his images. Walker Evans and Bruce Davidson each chose the subway and its passengers as a site for mapping urban life: Evans in the early twentieth century, using a hidden camera, and Davidson in the 1980s, capturing the decade’s franticness. Indeed, for image makers, it’s difficult to fully comment on the rhythm of New York without paying attention to its massive public transit system. Wagner has found the romance in it all, the gentleness that emerges when working from a nuanced space of subjectivity. In this way, I’m reminded of the late Charles “Teenie” Harris, a photographer who chronicled black Pittsburgh from the 1930s to the ’70s. Many, though not all, of Wagner’s subjects are black folks. Like Harris, Wagner has found a way to record moments of black urbanity that emphasizes an expressiveness that runs counter to stifling narratives about blackness and urbanity we are too accustomed to seeing in mainstream newspapers and media outlets—if and when blackness is represented at all.
What does it mean, then, to glean a vocabulary of abundance from Wagner’s photograph of four smiling black boys in their backpacks? From a father exiting a train car with his two daughters? In the introduction to her recent book, Listening to Images (2017), Tina M. Campt argues that quietness is a sonic methodology that provides a tool for contemplating the registers of the photograph. As she notes, “the quotidian is not equivalent to passive everyday acts, and quiet is not an absence of articulation or utterance.” That is, it’s not enough to see the image. Instead, we must also contend with what lives beyond the image, the world in which the image is located. Wagner’s Here for the Ride is a project of great care and skill from an artist who understands his role as a storyteller and attends the many utterances contained within his pictures. It’s a narrative of quiet wonder.
Here for the Ride was published by Creative Future in 2017.