Michele Robecchi talks to Andy Summers

Michele Robecchi: First of all, how did you take up photography?

Andy Summers: Well, like most people in my life, I took pictures, but I think I was probably a bit more obsessive about pursuing a normal snap than most people. But for me it was really when The Police got underway and I thought to myself Ďnow Iím really kind of doing this music thing, but I want to do something elseí, and I wanted to do photography. And it was very natural for me, although I wasnít someone who was going to get up and really go for it, but I obviously was drawn to it. I loved black-and-white photography and I just started to study it, probably in about 1978 or í79.

MR: You were already touring in the í60s. Were you interested in art at the time?

AS: To be honest, I think I was very influenced by film or at least the films I used to see as a kid, mostly black-and-white films. I always just liked them. Loads of Ö well, I was going to say cinema veritť, but particularly the new-age cinema of France. And I tended to see that sort of imagery as very romantic. Iíd think about making films, or music for films, and always with that sort of black-and-white imagery in my head. I think actually my decision of starting to shoot so seriously was probably dictated by my desire to try to recreate a lot of the stuff that influenced me growing up. And that was actually black-and-white cinema. It was just a way of creating that sensibility in my mindís eye.

MR: Your early photographs were staged. They were mostly still-lives with a strong Surrealism flavour.

AS: Yeah, yeah, well, of course. I was very influenced by Surrealism when I started. It was a huge influence.

MR: I remember the three stripes of photographs on the ĎSynchronicityí album cover (1983). Yours was definitely the most art-oriented.

AS: Yes, we decided to reserve a section of the cover for each one of us to interpret. We had to choose a photographer and I chose Duane Michals. So, there was that photograph of the piano with the egg or the one with the telephone burning.

MR: And then you moved to street photography?

AS: It sort of happened by chance. Street photography involves more social contact, more political contact. I take art out on the street generally Ö not always, I do a lot of interior shots too. Itís just a context that youíre sorting out to create some other kind of metaphor. When you shoot a picture, itís loaded imagery, you know; itís not just a picture of someone standing by a lamp-post Ė thereís more to it than that.

MR: Were you influenced by the work of photographers like Walker Evans?

AS: Sorry, I donít know him.

MR: Heís the so-called master of the Boston school of street photography. His work was very influential on a whole generation of artists, from Philip-Lorca diCorcia to Nan GoldinÖ

AS: I like Nan Goldin. I like her work.

MR: This series of photographs, ĎCity Like Thisí, is something that you have developed for three years, right?

AS: Yes, Iíve shot more and more of this night stuff over the last two or three years and I think when I get back to LA Iím going to start putting this into a book. In fact, immediately Iím going to start work on it, because I have all the pictures pulled out ready to go, so now itís just really sequencing.

MR: So how did you select the images for the exhibition?

AS: What I did was I pulled out 60 pictures and said here, look at these, you choose them, because I like all of them, but I let the gallery pick them and I didnít really mind because I liked them all.

MR: How do you think the work evolved during these three years?

AS: Well, you know, itís just like anything else: the longer you do it, you just get more and more refined. Itís like the taste of wine, the longer you leave it, the more refined or dark it goes. The same with photographic art Ė you get more sensitive. And you also get more confident. You have this sort of privileged sense Ö because youíre trying to catch people all the time in a natural state so the picture is real, but you donít want it to look that real. Itís quite difficult to do and you have to be very subversive. Yet when youíre in action you feel a sort of adrenaline rush. I go through one or two rolls and then your mind and your eye start to click in and you start to suddenly see everything. And it really happens. You start to get into a flow, and I absolutely feel, after an hour or two behind the camera, I suddenly start to see everything. And itís not that Iím not getting anything. I mean you kind of know when you get one.

MR: I like the one of the black man with a white hand on his shoulder.

AS: That was in Times Square. When I go to New York I love to go to Times Square and hang out there. It tends to bring good material. Itís always kind of got an atmosphere and a lot of attitude. And when people are messing it up on a Friday or Saturday night in that sort of scenario, weirdly enough you can creep around them and they tend to not see you; theyíre talking away with their buddies or whatever. Itís the same in London on a Saturday night if you go down to Soho Ė thereís a real mob scene. When it comes to taking photographs, you can sort of go there almost with impunity; people donít seem to see you. Even if you go right in their face, their mind is elsewhere. You can go click and youíre gone and then thatís it. So itís good when it works like that, but itís not always like that.

MR: I noticed there arenít many from LA, which is where you live.

AS: No, because you canít find that sort of tight crowded scene where you can really do that. I was thinking about that recently. I havenít got much in LA. I think I might go to San Francisco for a weekend sometime. Thereís a great scene up there and I could probably get some pretty good stuff. And Iíd like to go down to Texas, to the border towns, like Laredo, El Paso, San Antonio. Itís pretty weird down there, cowboys and shit, itís pretty cool. Iím thinking about driving down there sometime between now and the summer and trying to do some photography. I bet I could get some pretty good pictures. There are definitely some trips like that on the way. Iím going to go to Brazil too.

MR: Youíve been to Brazil recently, right?

AS: Yeah. I just came back. I was there with Mark Gibson. We went to Brazil to a three-day, intense, crazy festival, way out in the Amazon. Youíve got to get a small plane and fly right into the jungle, where thereís this town on the river there somewhere, with this three-day carnival, and we went and photographed that together.

MR: Youíre also a painter.

AS: I did painting for about six years and I was very into it. The problem for me with painting as opposed to photography is really that painting is so involving. Youíve got to spend so much time with it, and I started to get worried that I was never going to play the guitar again. So I finally stopped doing as much, and went back to photography, although I never really stopped doing photography.

MR: Some of your photographs seem to have a painterly quality.

AS: Yes. There is actually one in this show which was printed on canvas. And we think we might be on to something there because everybody loves that. Well, itís a great photograph, but having it on canvas really worked. And I thought maybe if we started doing the big ones on canvas I might even paint on them, do something with that. Iím going to experiment, see which photographs would work. I think you want very strong graphic images to do that. So yeah, I could paint on them, but then if you are painting on them, then you are making some other kind of statement.

MR: You are obviously aware of the fact that some people might be interested in your photographic work because of who you are and not just because of the quality of the work.

AS: Yeah. I mean, they might be. Itís important to try to avoid that, but itís impossible for me. I am who I am, I cannot avoid my own history, but that doesnít make me any less than any other photographer. I might be a better photographer than they are, I just happen to be a major musician and I can take photographs.

Michele Robecchi is Senior Editor of Contemporary