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A Rock Star Finds Himself on the Other Side of the Camera

Montserrat, Lesser Antilles, December 1982

Copenhagen, Denmark, January 1982

Montserrat, Lesser Antilles, December 1982

Back in 1979, while watching television in his New York hotel room, British rock star Andy Summers had a revelation: “I should get a real camera,” he writes in an essay that appears in the new monograph, A Certain Strangeness (University of Texas Press).

“Our band, the Police, was moving fast in the US. With pockets suddenly stuffed with dollars and what they called ‘media attention,’ we were a hot new band. You could feel it in this city, where already our names were being called out in the streets. It was fun, but sitting around and staring at the walls of hotel rooms was boring, and we need diversions.”

Summers goes on to recount the experience of being in front of he camera, posing for snaps, and realizing he was intrigued by the way photographers went about their business. He decided to buy a camera and immediately took to the streets, like a duck to water, equally at home with a guitar as he was with a Nikon FE.

Summers made photographs like the Police made songs: instantly recognizable and compelling, yet consistently surprising and unlike anything you were expecting. As you page through the book, a poetry emerges like the lyrics of the song — and a little black spot on the sun today slowly finds its way on to silver gelatin paper.

Here, Summers takes us for a trip around the earth, yet his is the eye of an artist, not pop star. The frames he composes and chooses for the book are epic scenes of life that are at once mundane and magnificent. They are a way of looking and seeing the world that are rich and resonant with a sensitivity to the moment: a sense of being fully present and discovering that which is hiding in pain sight — the eternal, ethereal mystery of the this thing we call life.

In 1983, the band took a break before recording their magnum opus, Synchronicity, and Summers came to New York in search of a book publisher. His agent introduced to him to a man named Joe, who just so happened to print for no less than Robert Frank. They called Ralph Gibson to see if he would do the layout, and Gibson signed up the book, Throb, for his company, Lustrum Press.

Working with Gibson was the turning point; not only did Summers meet Mary Ellen Mark, Larry Clark, and Duane Michaels but he got himself a Leica and with that everything changed. “With this camera I felt as if I was finally stepping onto the true path,” he writes.

That year, Syncronicity and Throb were released, and a phenomenal wave of success came into Summers’ life — and then, after it peaked, it all came to a complete end. “We had enjoyed a phenomenal run unequaled by anyone apart from the Beatles, so coming out of it to a dead stop was a hallucinatory experience,” he writes.

“A psychological black hole where the reality and intensity of a life so full was suddenly torn away, and you had to make a fantastic and painful adjustment to new strange conditions — like everyday life…”

But perhaps it was in this space, in the absence of public adoration and commercial success, that Summers’ honed his eye to rediscover the magic of life in the silent stillness of the single photograph — and in doing so reconnected to everything that made the Police one of the biggest bands on earth.

Mexico, April 1991

Mexico, April 1991

Los Angeles, California, May 1983

San Francisco, California, February 1982

Soho, London, United Kingdom, April 2005

All images: © Andy Summers

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