Andre D. Wagner is a young photographer with an old soul. He shoots black-and-white film and prints his pictures, by his own hand, on a scale (11 x 14 and 16 x 20 inches) that, these days, is conspicuous in its modesty.
The intimate size matters. It matches the tenderness of his approach toward his subjects, mostly fellow residents of Brooklyn. Wagner practices a quiet, lyrical kind of humanism that comes straight out of the traditions of mid-20th-century street photography and the social documentary photo-essay. "Tell It Like It Is," his show at L.A.'s Papillion, is invigorating.
Photography excels at showing us what we can't see -- motion too fast, views too distant or specimens too small for the eye to perceive -- but it also shows us what we don't see, realities made invisible by familiarity, veiled by bias or strategically suppressed.
Wagner's work comes out of his respect -- awe, even -- for the value of ordinary lives playing out in ordinary ways. His focus on African Americans in his community affirms that value, pithily summed up by the meme Black Lives Matter. Wagner's pictures help correct the record, flesh it out. They serve as counterbalance, antidote to injustices perpetrated in the realm of representation.
He shows us older women out shopping, little girls having a laugh on a stoop and little boys in playful camaraderie, mothers with their kids on the bus, a shoeshine man on a break. Nothing of conventional consequence happens during these interstitial moments, but meaning is vested in them and Wagner's keen eye seizes upon the rich, spontaneous choreography of gestures, shadows and signage perpetually staged on city streets.
He homes in on the exquisite visual dynamism energizing even the quietest of scenes.
Consider his picture of three young boys sharing two seats on the subway. The station is a blur out the window, and fragments of bodies on either side frame these innocent souls in their gleaming white T-shirts, hands folded on their laps. Two succumb to motion-induced slumber and the third sits silently observing. Their heads align like adjacent frames in a stop-motion photograph. Wagner edits out all but the bottom word, "History," in the poster mounted above them, as if to acknowledge the ever-present bearing of the past on their unknown future.
American flags crop up everywhere in these pictures -- on shirts and patches, in the hand of a pensive girl at a meat counter, on the exterior of a subway car whose window frames the sober, level gaze of a black passenger, echoing Robert Frank's powerful photograph of a segregated trolley in the '50s. Along with the lucid beauty and honesty of work by Roy DeCarava, Helen Levitt and Gordon Parks, Frank's "The Americans" is a clear antecedent to Wagner's work.
Wagner hasn't so much "sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film," as Jack Kerouac wrote of Frank, but his everyday epic, too, is dense and necessary, an affirmation that everything -- and everyone -- matters.