Andy Summers of the Police is famous for his trademark guitar, an old, modified Fender Telecaster. But there's another instrument equally integral to the musician - his Leica M6 camera.
Summers first gained attention as a photographer with black-and-white, behind-the-scenes shots taken during the band's tours in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Groupies, hotel corridors and the faces of ecstatic fans were captured with the graininess and rich blacks that were making a comeback in the photography world, particularly by the mid-1980s. That was when the members of the Police were starting to go their separate ways and Summers had became engrossed in photography.
"Depending on your own genetic makeup, it can get obsessive. Towards the end [of the Police's heyday] I seemed to be doing photography so much, so full on. And also being in the band, it was completely intense," Summers said during a stop in Toronto last week, where his photos are currently featured in Shadow Notes, an exhibition created for the Luminato festival continuing until Sunday.
Summers has described Roxanne and other Police songs as material he has long left behind, despite the group's 2007-2008 reunion tour. He has since branched off in jazz and fusion directions. Still, his photography is very much rooted in that era of black and white's comeback, a time when photography was re-establishing a link back to Robert Frank's seminal 1958 book The Americans and other mid-century masterworks. This might seem almost retro today, as photographers explore digital tools. But Summers sees it differently. For him, black and white is not something that comes and goes: "For some of us, it never left."
With his Leica, and sometimes even a down-market point-and-shoot camera, Summers tries to shoot in situations where he's inconspicuous. Sometimes he'll wear a hat to cover his blond hair. But other times he shoots where "everyone knows who I am, and when I pick up a camera, they think it's funny. I get a lot of great shots that way. I shot the audience a lot on the last [reunion]tour."
Of his style of photographs, he added, "The thing that I love purely from an instinctual and emotional response is black and white. It seems so powerful and has this element of truth in it that seems to be missing from colour photography. Colour photography seems so banal in comparison, while black and white always seemed to have a stronger emotional truth."
It's no surprise then that the two other photographers being shown with Summers at Luminato are Danny Clinch and Ralph Gibson, known for a similarly straightforward style. Gibson, another Leica aficionado, is eager to drive into the dust the idea that digital has permanently trumped film. (And incidentally, just as Fender made a limited-edition replica of Summers's unique Telecaster, Leica has a custom Ralph Gibson signature model of its MP film camera - a camera that has the older, more tactile feel of manually changing the f-stops and shutter speeds and demands that photographers get relatively close to their subjects.)
"What with the nature of cellphones taking images," Gibson said, "you can probably opine that there are more digital images made today or this afternoon than in the entire history of light on film. However, I would like you to give me the name of one masterpiece. This work is made for and designed to be ephemera. There seems to be no criteria, no interest in producing works of staying power or endurance from the digital media."
Gibson, who once worked for Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange, has often aimed for iconic work, and that's reflected in the advice he gives other photographers. He tells them to destroy any negative of theirs that reflects the work of another photographer they admire: "Show me something that's so specifically you, something that has no point of reference to anything that has come before. Any photographer we admire has a visual signature. You recognize his or her work from across a parking lot."
"Getting a visual signature in a medium where all you do is press a little button is not the easiest thing in the world," he added. Much of Gibson's signature is a playfulness and intentional simplicity, which steer him away from the weightier and socially conscious works of the generation before him.
Gibson is among Summers's many influences. Summers is also particularly drawn to the work of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, who pushes the Robert Frank aesthetic into a rich, Japanese cosmopolitan dreaminess. "I think what I move toward is, in a sense, a kind of low-key, more subdued thing in art, where it's more ambiguous, slightly obscure. It's like playing minor keys and complex chords, rather than big, bright major chords," Summers said.
Summers often talks about hitting "colours" when playing guitar, despite his preference for black-and-white photography. It's not a contradiction. It's the way he seems to explore other directions as he heads toward a final outcome in his work, looking left to turn right. With the Police, that often meant adding augmented guitar shimmers to Sting's bass melodies. In photography, it's found in nighttime street scenes and dark, abstract shadows in the bright sun. He's recently back from a trip to shoot market scenes in Morocco.
"With digital of course, there are some people doing incredible things with colours. But I don't think it has the same power as black and white," he said.
Photographs by Andy Summers, Danny Clinch and Ralph Gibson can be seen in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square until Sunday.