Andy Summers is best known as a guitarist for the English rock band The Police, popular in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. But he has also been a passionate and award-winning photographer from the film days through the digital transition to today. Summers has published five books on his photography, the latest from teNeues is A Series of Glances, and has had his work shown at over 60 exhibitions worldwide.
The Attraction to Black & White
“Well, color wasn’t really regarded very seriously then as art photography,” Summers tells PetaPixel on a phone call. “Color started moving a bit in the early 70s with William Eggleston. And a couple of others followed him, like Joel Meyerowitz, whose work was taken seriously as art photography.
“So, photography was black and white, and almost everybody shot black and white. And, of course, I had grown up with all those black-and-white films [movies]. So, it’s, of course, where I went. Color was regarded as secondary, but that’s not true anymore. So that was the atmosphere I grew up in. I went to B&W, thousands of rolls of [Kodak] Tri-X.
“Yeah, maybe a few shots [in the book], I used, sometimes shooting at night, I would use [Ilford] Delta 3200.
Lest you get the idea that Summers is a B&W purist, that is untrue. He has a whole set of color photos and is even thinking about a future book on his color photography.
“In my years with The Police, I was in a tax exile — I lived in Ireland,” he says. “I did set up a darkroom. And worked at it for a while. And I liked to know that side of it. I was fanatical enough about photography outside of music to want to learn about darkroom processes. And I set one up and had a go at it for a while.
“But decided that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be in a darkroom. Honestly, I’m glad to have tried it. I’m gonna let somebody else…I had one guy in London, an American guy I took my films to in Covent Garden [a shopping and entertainment hub in London’s West End].
“There’s probably some digital [in A Series of Glances]. I didn’t start digital until 2012. My first digital camera was a Leica. I’ve got Leica M10 cameras now – both black and white [M10 Monochrom] and color.
“I don’t like grain [referring to film photography]. A lot of photographers like it, [especially] photographers from older days. I like to have blur and distortion in the pictures. We’re always trying to push the edge of photography, you know, in your [photographic] statements… It’s an art form, so you can bend the rules.
We wanted to know the difference between shooting film and digital from Summers, who has done his fair share of both.
“I don’t think it’s about digital or film?” fires back Summers. “I think it’s about the eye and the mind. That’s what photography is about. It’s not about the camera or film. It’s about how you visualize, how you think about art. So those sorts of questions are interesting if you’re a nerd, but to me, they’re not. I’m quite happy using these Leica digital cameras, and I think [they] have made me better. They’ve made me a better photographer.
Summers typically shoots at 400 ISO on film and digital.
“I would rate [Kodak] 400 Tri-X at 800 or 1600 ISO and do things like that as well,” clarifies Summers.
“But of course, you know it’s digital. If you feel like, ‘Oh, I need more latitude on the F-stops,’ then you can push the ASA [ASA is a scale created by the American Standards Association, but it is no longer used. Now, most film is labeled by ISO, created in 1987 by the International Organization for Standardization] all the way up to 6400 on [Leica] M10.
“And with digital, if you go after a much higher ASA, it’s much less noticeable than film. So, I think you have a much, much more latitude with it. So, yeah, it’s a good thing.
“I don’t shoot film anymore. Okay. I’m sort of at it, returning to it, but it is a very, it’s a big deal. To shoot film and develop it is a real hassle. I was recently in Amsterdam with a kid who insisted on shooting film, but the trouble he had with developing and all the rest of it! It’s also costly now.
“I have a whole system of how I work with my photography. I have an assistant … returned from a trip and gave him ten cards. He loads them into our database, gives them to me, and I load them into my computer. I have a 27-inch computer which I work on and select the very best out of them.
“And then he takes them back, cuts it down to just the best shots, returns them to me, and then they go into another system [where the images are keyworded]. All [the images] fall into categories, so it’s easy for me to go through and find things.
“I’m not a landscape photographer or a fashion photographer. I hate fashion photography. I’m influenced by photographers like Ralph Gibson, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander and filmmakers like [François] Truffaut and [Ingmar] Bergman and [Federico] Fellini. That’s where the sensibility is for me.
“It’s just like music. You work in the media, and you come to find your own voice. I like abstraction, blur, distortion, and all these things because I come from a musical sensibility. And I think that works very well with photography.
“There’s great parallels for me. Because I practice both disciplines, you can bring the terms of one of the practices to the other. Why not? I feel like being a guitar player, or musician, is a significant advantage because I have a whole other set of ways of thinking that maybe other developers who aren’t like passionate musicians, they don’t have it.”
Photography and music are always in Summers’ mind, almost like he has a permanent headset.
“When I listen to sounds in a city like Manhattan, New York, and I walk around, my eyes are turned on, and I’m always thinking. I was just there for a week in New York City. So great, thrilling, this is different than where I live [Los Angeles]. I’m always looking and thinking, throwing a rectangular frame on, as I’m looking at everything.”
Photographing China and the World
Outside the US, Summers has photographed the most in China.
“I went to China eight times,” he proudly exclaims. “A few years ago, I went to see the Naxi Orchestra play in their own little theatre in Li Jiang. So that was pretty interesting. I traveled all over, and I went to Tibet.
“I noticed yesterday I was looking at something to do in the studio, and there’s an overwhelming number of shots I did in China because it was so visually stimulating to me.
“One thing I noticed about China as opposed to, say, someplace like Morocco. [When you raise your camera] the Chinese don’t even blink an eye. They smile at you and don’t mind the camera at all. It’s really weird. It’s a cultural thing. In other cultures you go, they object.
“Sometimes I’m just traveling. Sometimes, I like to travel just to do photography. Yeah, I was in India. I wasn’t always on tour in China– I was just there. And, of course, I always have a guitar with me because I have to always play, but I wasn’t doing any actual concerts.”
Summers was not the official photographer for The Police, but he had the best vantage point being part of the band.
“I had the great and singular opportunity to be traveling in the world’s most famous band for a few years and photographing it always from the inside. Nobody asked me to do what I did, but I did it.
In the film days, X-rays were the biggest worry for photographers taking multiple flights.
“It was of great concern to me,” says the photographer. “I went on one of the trips and must have been before they came out with the first Leica digital, and I was still on film. I was traveling around China, and I had traveled all over Asia.
“I think I came in from somewhere like Laos or Cambodia, and they put my bag through the X-ray, and I was so freaked out. That was the only time that happened to me. I had 90 rolls of film, and only a couple were sort of destroyed. Mostly, they were okay. They were all in those X-Ray [lead-lined] bags. I was pretty paranoid about it.
In 2019, Leica introduced the $14,995 Andy Summers Leica M Monochrom. It also included a Leica Summicron-M f/2 35mm ASPH lens, a Fender guitar-inspired camera strap, and an Oberwerth leather black system bag. It was limited to 50 sets worldwide.
“I think I’ve got three of them or something like that,” says the Leica photographer. “I can’t remember. They are upstairs in an attic. They are precious. I’m really happy to have them, but I don’t sit around staring at them.
“By the time they came out with the camera, I was already on to the M10. I wish they’d made it as an M10. But I was very happy to have it done. It was a nice thing, and it sold out pretty quickly.
“I’ve just spent two months on the road photographing, and I’ll be going on a musical tour for the rest of the year in America. And, of course, It’ll provide me with many photography opportunities. So, I’m looking forward to getting into that because I haven’t gone touring in America for a long time.
Summers has been touring South America in the last few months, including Brazil and Ecuador.
“I’ve been going to Brazil every year, sometimes a few times here since 1995. And I play South Brazil as my other home is there. I’m very used to being in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve done many things in Brazil, and also, Argentina, Chile everywhere. This last tour was Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and Paraguay. And we have to go back to finish it in Mexico.”
Summers backs up his files on the road to four or five devices, including a small MacBook Pro.
He knows photographers are shooting in color and then converting to B&W. So, we asked him if he could/would do the same.
“I’m thinking about it,” he speaks with some hesitation in his voice. “And it’s the first time I’ve ever thought about that. Black and white is sort of sacred to me, but we’re living in different times.
“When I go this year, I normally would take an M10 mono and an M10 color, but I must always have a backup camera in case anything goes wrong. I might [just] take two color cameras, but I’m thinking about it.
Not a Street Photographer or Documentary Photographer
Summers has traveled streets around the world but is not a street photographer.
“I don’t like street photography,” he says. “I’m not looking for like the essence of street. I’m just not interested. That’s not a sensibility at all.
Is Summers a documentary photographer?
“No, I’m an art photographer. That’s what I’m interested in. I don’t really see doing documentary.”
The Leica Museum ran a Summers’ show called A Certain Strangeness, also the title of one of his books. Summers feels that the phrase describes the quality of a photograph to open the eyes.
“They have a certain way, always trying to find something, you know, oblique, a visual image that will catch [the eye] that is not a cliche. No ordinary [photograph] is gonna strike the viewer’s sensibility. A strange juxtaposition of elements in the photograph [can] make a much more interesting photograph.
Summers is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is in the Guitar Player Hall of Fame, has the keys to New York City, has won five Grammy awards, and has been awarded the Chevalier De L’Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture in France.
“I don’t even think about it,” says Summers, brushing it aside. “I have so many awards and rewards and all that over the years. Getting these things is nice, but my life’s not based on that. The only thing that counts is doing the work.
Connecting Music and Photography
So, what is the connection between music and photography?
“That’s a very big question,” says the musical photographer. “There are certain elements like line, balance, frame, juxtaposition of the elements and, you know, bass, treble, middle chords, harmony, melodic lines. It’s the same thing in photography; you’re looking for all those same elements, except they are visual rather than aural. That’s the difference, but you can see how they translate from one to the other.
The title of Summers’ latest book is A Series of Glances, and we wanted to know if he is glancing through his viewfinder.
“Yes, you are glancing all the time,” says Summers. “And then you hold the glance, so it becomes [an image]. A glance implies it’s very quick, but some photography is done quickly. Like the camera tells you to do it at 1/125 of a second, and you must think that fast.
Summers’ photos have a dreamlike quality.
“Yeah, I think so,” says Summers in agreement. “I think you’re looking for another sort of reality that you could point [out]. You have the ability not to distort reality but to collect photographs, sequence them, and present another sort of reality that becomes personal and maybe more interesting to people.
“Most photographers that influenced me are American,” says England-born guitarist Summers. “A lot of them from New York. I mean, you’ve got people like I’m trying to think of, Bill Brandt, in England. Obviously, Cartier Bresson is the kind of person you start with when you first get into it.
“I spent a lot of time in New York and became very close friends with Ralph Gibson [who recommended a Leica M4-2 Best Premium Rangefinder Camera, which Summers often used]. And I thought his photography was wonderful and very musical. I then got into other people like Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Duane Michals.
Summers never uses flash and even hates the look of it.
“Some people [photographers] make a success of it. But I tend to associate flash with celebrity photography, and I don’t like flash. And most of the photographers I like don’t use flash.
“It’s absolutely disgusting [the firing of flash at a performer.] And I’ve been on the [receiving] end of that so many millions of times because I do concerts. Photographers are allowed to do [shoot] the first three songs, and you get a bunch of guys sitting/standing in front of the stage taking really bad photographs and often with flash. It’s horrible. When you’re on stage trying to play well for an audience, that flash is very disturbing.
Summers does admit that if you were using slow films like Kodachrome 64, you had to resort to flash.
In the future, Summers will keep photographing and refining his work. He is also planning on pulling out all the color work.
“Thinking about it, these things come to you slowly. You assemble things and then work your way through it, just like making music. I’m finishing up a new album now, and I’ve also got all this color photography on the computer in my studio.
“And so, I will start slowly arranging it into a sequence. After all the years of black and white, I’m challenging myself to see if I could do a whole book of color. So, that’s a little step for me!”
Getting Started in Photography
We asked Summers how he got started in photography.
“From boredom, “instantly replies the guitarist. “Years ago, I was always on tour and stuck in hotels. Like everybody else, I’d always take pictures with various cameras. But I was so involved with music that I did not take up photography as a serious pursuit.”
“I was also surrounded by photographers. We were so popular, so I told myself, ‘I am going to get a very good camera and become a photographer. I’m gonna study it,’ just like that. But, you know, I had no idea what it would really take, but the seed was there.
Summers asked a photographer in New York to help him get a camera, and she took him to B&H Photo.
“I bought a Nikon FE [1978-1983]. Oh, I’ve used that camera. Beautiful, beautiful,” says Summers fondly. [Me too! I enjoyed midnight long exposures of the Mount Everest region and the FE producing well-exposed Ektachrome 100 slides on aperture priority, selecting shutter speeds of 45 minutes plus.]
“Once I got it, it became a real passion for me. I always had cameras, and my brother was sort of an avid photographer. And when I was about 14, I got a job on the beach in England [Bournemouth in the south] in my hometown as a sort of summer photographer with some weird box camera photographing tourists and I did that for a couple of summers. I was 15,16, 17.
“I was going to a cinema in my hometown called the Continental Cinema, which showed all these fantastic European arthouse films, and I was going to those all the time. That was a big part of my sensibilities at a young age.
“I was completely involved with playing the guitar and American jazz, but I was also watching all these European arthouse films, and it didn’t make me take up photography then, although I sort of idly thought I should be a film director. But I was such an obsessive guitarist that that didn’t happen then.
“But all those films, all the black and white ones, absolutely infiltrated my consciousness. So, when I did get around to it a few years later, it was like seeds being sown, and it wasn’t coming from an empty place. That kind of stuff had a big impact on me. And so, therefore, it seems obvious that when I got the camera [it] sounded good, and I’m gonna get good at this. It came naturally.
When we spoke to noted academy award-winning cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins in May 2023, he told us a similar story of growing up in Bournemouth, photographing tourists on the beach as a summer job, and seeing arthouse films. But Deakins, in the late 60s and early 70s, was before Summers’ time.
“He must have been a few years before me, but yeah, that’s amazing.,” says Summers. “As I said, I thought I’d be a film director. I was 16 years old, 17 or whatever.”
“So, you see, it was all sort of there. But the guitar itself is such an obsessive instrument that I ended up doing. It kind of worked out at the end, right?”
A Series of Glances from teNeues is currently shipping.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.