China is a country with truly unique traditions, cultures, languages, monuments, history and arts. It is a country that after many centuries of technological innovations and evolution continues to challenge. Musician, photographer and world traveler Andy Summers doesn’t hide his fascination for China. Even though he has visited the country several times throughout his musical career and as a photographer, there is always something new, something worthy of documentation.
In light of Andy’s upcoming exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles starting on July 21st through September 4th, we talked about the images selected to be shown at the exhibition and about his admiration for Chinese culture. Practicing serious photography since the early 1980’s while touring with his band The Police, his Leica M (whether analog or digital) has been a constant partner during his travels.
You’ve traveled to many places around the world, taking photographs and interacting with other cultures, how is this experience?
It’s like music, like improvising. In the sense that you have to give and receive, be open and ready to act. I like to travel and immerse myself in different and sometimes challenging situations with other people. As I explored China I became more and more impressed by its incredible history and civilisation. Eventually I amassed a collection of photographs from these trips, and at the same time as I became for involved, I also got more specific about its potent visual imagery.
This exhibition in July at the Leica Gallery will just be an initial look at what I got out of these journeys, it shows aspects of China that, at least, appealed to me as photography – my take on it as it were.
Do you travel with someone else and how did you immerse yourself in these exotic yet untouched areas of China?
I always start from Shanghai, which has become the home base and usually when there, I am involved in a music performance of some kind and have also had photography shows and talks, etc., so it’s a continual connection with the city.
Some of the pictures you have shared are with musicians and their instruments. Please talk about these images.
I was particularly thrilled to get in front of the Naxi orchestra in Li Jiang in Yunnan province. I heard that there was a very old orchestra with musicians who themselves were pretty ancient. That was quite unique. Most of the musicians are in their mid-eighties, have been in the orchestra for most of their lives and actually play every night of the week. The performances take place in a little theatre in the center of town with an audience usually of about ten. It’s billed as a tourist attraction but the music probably appears quite strange to the average tourist.
For me, it was a true pleasure to hear to and attempt to absorb. It’s a traditional type of folk music from the 11th century but it’s way out there – something western sensibilities would regard as atonal. As a photographer, it’s a visual feast with their fantastic looking instruments and exotic costumes. As you spend time in the country you get a perception of what identifies that culture – visual metaphors or synecdoche – for instance, the instrument with the man in the image, as well as the girl with the two bags and stick on her shoulders.
Talk about the image with the women in black dresses where they are dancing.
It was a special show in Beijing. I was invited by the promoter and luckily I had my Leica Mono with me. The image is interesting with the audience witnessing what appears to be a girl receiving the light in a moment of ecstatic transformation.
You’ve shown your work at several other exhibition; what was the curation process like for the one on July at the Leica Gallery Los Angeles?
After talking with Paris Chong, at Leica Gallery Los Angeles, we made the selection. I had another exhibition there last year and clearly wanted to show new work, so I decided to show these recent images from China. Whether it’s abstract or portrait I wanted to show a metaphorical viewpoint… a dreamscape of China, so I picked 40 images with that in mind. Later this year, there will be a book of this work.
The “Bones of Chuang Tzu”, can you share the background for naming this exhibition like this?
I like Chinese poetry very much and the idea of traveling on the road with no given destination. One of the great individuals who spoke on this topic, was a very influential sage and philosopher, by the name of Chuang Tzu, who existed in the 4th century B.C. Chuang Tzu extolled the idea of wandering and thinking, if you like, as did Basho in Japan. My personal version of that I suppose would be wandering about in a country like China with a Leica in my hand. The title “The Bones of Chuang Tzo” is not original but comes from a poem by Chang Heng who lived between 78-139 A.D. It gives me great happiness to be out of the big cities and photographing these timeless areas and seeing that to some degree they remain untouched.
Chuang Tzu, from the school of Taoism, was a great philosopher and a very influential figure before Confucianism. He greatly influenced Zen in Japan. I’ve always been interested in this field, and in fact the origination of much of this would have been in these rural areas and ‘open’ regions in China.
The beautiful scenery of the seas of clouds and landscape with the sky shows a powerful range of silky whites and mountain tops. Where was this?
This view is called “Cloud Dispersing Pavilion” by the Chinese, it is on top of the Yellow Mountain. It’s a sacred mountain in an incredible area, about an hour and a half south of Shanghai. Yellow Mountain is very famous and revered and is the subject of thousands of Chinese brush paintings. Yellow Mountain is what you are looking at.
Chinese civilisations have evolved over time and compared to Western societies, their cultural connections and traditions are very much alive. How do you perceive China as a civilisation today?
It’s a fascinating and complex country and for me at any rate, I prefer to think about the country pre-Mao and Communism. Shanghai itself is extremely sophisticated and wealthy. With arts, fashion, trendy restaurants, etc. You see a very specific aspect of the Chinese lifestyle when you’re there.
The Western side of China is less touched by modern developments so I’m more attracted to this area. China is a visual marvel of contrasts, from limestone mountains, amazing rice fields, and the tribal traditions of the minority peoples – as the Han call them. When going from east to west, you feel like you’re in completely different countries, sometimes they don’t even speak the same language. China invented almost everything and the fact is with so many things they were ahead of the west by about a thousand years. Seeing how incredible refined and subtle their traditions are is enlightening to say the least.
You’ve taken pictures for a long time now, documenting how you see other people’s lives and how it impacts you both as a person and as an artist. How do you see the evolution of film and digital?
I’ve shot with film all my life. My favourite camera was the Leica M6 for a great portion of my photographic career. In 2012, traveling across all Asia, I carried 90 rolls of film, at a certain moment, it simply became quite difficult. The digital Leica M Monochrom came out and was basically the same camera – only now digital. So it was a natural move. The digital color cameras weren’t of much interest to me. The Monochrom accepted all the great Leica lenses, so I was off and running. Not for any huge preference of digital over film, but mainly because of convenience. I shoot almost always on the 50mm lens. I’ve shot black and white, almost exclusively, never done any exhibit in color (yet). I always perform best when I stick with one single thing. I believe I do better photography when shooting in black and white and not getting confused by any other medium. I’ve refined it to a point where I know what I want to shoot, how to handle the camera and keep it relatively simple.
As an artist, mixing photography and music, how do you see the evolution of the music industry itself?
Is it evolving? Or de-volving? The golden era for musicians is over. You don’t sell records today like we used to. With my band, we sold over 100 million records. How can artists do this today? The joy of going to a record store and discovering new music, it’s not there anymore…online, maybe?
It’s a different game now. It doesn’t take away the urge to create and to continue recording new music. I personally feel like the music I’m making now is a closer equivalent of my photography; that’s were I’ve come to as an artist. You listen to my last record “Metal Dog”, and you get that message, that same sensibility.
You were last year in Brazil, performing as well. How was the experience of traveling there and what other projects do you have planned?
I’ve been there probably for about thirty-five times now. I shoot all over the country, this last time I went to a rainforest with waterfalls, swimming in the rivers, trekking through the rain forest, etc., that was fun! In fact, I’ll be back in November for some concerts and am looking forward to that. The lust for travel doesn’t quit. The world is changing fast and it’s important to see some of these places before they disappear forever.
As a photographer I’m thinking what kind of photography will I be able to do at a specific place or region. Sometimes you get the best photographs out of places that might seem as the least interesting, the back alleys Hanoi for example…
Last question. Gibson or Fender?
Ahh.. well, it depends on the song! In photography, I shoot always with Leica, so there’s no question here about this. I just got the Leica Q, a beautiful little camera. It’s great to use, and think it’s one of the best point and shoots ever made. If you really want to know, when I’m just sitting in my studio working I always have a ’61 Strat at hand but there’s also a Gibson Les Paul about three feet away and beyond that along the wall about another twenty – all shapes and sizes, etc., etc.
Thank you Andy!