Man in a suitcase . . . with camera

Guitarist Andy Summers comes to Tokyo for a photography exhibition at the BLD Gallery

by Donald Eubank

“I love contemporary art, I like a lot of conceptual art. I’ve followed it for years, endlessly. I mean where do you want to start really?” asks Andy Summers in an interview conducted last week. “I spent quite a few years painting and all I did was think about art and go to museums. I was enmeshed in all of it. But I finally felt that doing photography was what I really enjoyed.”

Summers is best known as the guitarist for The Police, but he was in Tokyo for “Desirer Walks the Streets,” an exhibition of his photography that is showing through next Monday at the BLD gallery in Ginza. The show coincides with the launch of a book of the same title (published by musician Nagato Ishiwata’s company, Shuppan-Kyodo) that features 200 of Summers’ art photographs. When The Police went back on tour in 2007, he released “I’ll Be Watching You: Inside the Police, 1980-83,” but this time, the last thing Summers is doing is documenting any musical era.

“I told The Daily Telegraph in London — ’cause they were like ‘Oh, it’s reportage’ — No, it’s the opposite,” says Summers. “It’s the absolute opposite — it’s Surrealism. For me it is juxtaposing these different things and playing them off each other in a formal sense: shape, black, white, shape, and subject matter as well, to create this Surrealist dream.”

The images hold together well as a whole. Grainy black-and-white shots travel through a myriad of dark subjects: gritty streets, shadowy interiors, intimate nudes, and abstract, textural washes. Walking in without knowing who the photographer was, you could mistake them for the well-known work of Daido Moriyama, who spoke with Summers at the opening and was complimentary about the guitarist’s prints.

“I realize now that I had one of his books of photography for years, ‘Black Sun,’ which was him and Eikoh Hosoe, Masahisa Fukase and Shomei Tomatsu,” says Summers. “But it was a couple of years ago that really I started to see Daido’s work. I was in London with another photographer and he said, ‘you should really check out this guy.’ ”

On his trips to Tokyo, Summers has shot in Shinjuku — as Moriyama has done many times — a place that seems to exude a sirens’ call for contemporary photographers. But on this visit, he was more impressed with a walk through Yanaka in Eastern Tokyo’s Taito Ward.

“It was fantastic. The temples and that cemetery . . . And it was the most beautiful afternoon — the most incredible golden light and the cherry blossoms were blowing like snow,” says Summers, swept up in the irresistible hanami spirit. “And I was going, ‘I can’t believe this, this is totally insane’ — you know, the cherry blossoms were blowing right into the lens. It was just incredibly photogenic.

“I felt like, ‘God, now it is getting authentic.’ When you go to Shinjuku, it’s coming at you so strong. It’s a bit overwhelming. I photographed it last year, and it’s kind of sleazy, and basically it’s kind of horrible if you think about it. Though Golden Gai is much nicer.”

When Summers goes out to shoot, he usually works fast — in Tokyo alone he’s shot 80 rolls in his several weeks here — often “chancing it” to create “fabrics” that he uses in sequences of photos. The book “Desirer Walks the Streets” juxtaposes such abstract images with subjects captured in oddly revealing moments to create a seamless consistency. The typical graininess holds the images together and gives them a dreamlike quality that has a nowhere- and-everywhere feel. Only small hints give away locations, as in one shot of a lumpy back on a modern street that reveals itself to be a monk in Tokyo when you notice a banner with Japanese on it.

This rootlessness probably tells viewers the most about the man behind the lens; in total, the exhibition speaks of someone on tour. And who would know better about that than the member of a band that played a concert almost every three days in 2007, in cities across the Americas, Europe and Asia? Crumbling hotel facades in Vietnam, a headless concierge offering a pen, an empty lounge that has the heads of unicorns mounted on the wall, a spiky public monument — these are the strange places that you come across once you get out “there.” People are portrayed in in-between spots, such as the old man in a cafe wedged into an outdoor hallway, concentrating on lighting his cigarette, and another man with a cleanly shaved head in front of a glowing streetscape, peering over his shoulder with a questioning look.

“I came off the incredible dream of playing with The Police for two years for 80,000 people, and then I was like (slaps hands together) . . . it takes a bit of recovering from,” says Summers. “You have to reassess, because you’ll never go that high again. Like anyone who does this stuff, you have to rebuild your mojo after that. So I do the photography, I can do a book, and I am thinking about making another album.”

In no way does he think of photography as secondary to his music though — instead the two inform each other. Densely displayed at the BLD Gallery, the 40 photographs have a narrative, rhythmic layout that suggests a musical composition or album arrangement.

“Being a musician and then talking about photographs, I often am asked to make statements about music and photography, like about ‘hearing photographs’ and things like that,” says Summers. “But I don’t have to do that to justify it, ’cause it’s rubbish really. I like to think that all these forms are interchangeable. If you have feelings and abilities to express in one area, it would be really odd if you weren’t able to transfer it into another medium. I would find it suspicious if you spent all your life learning to express, compose, think ideas through, make sequences in one medium, that you wouldn’t be able to understand another medium and take it across.

“This is very egotistical, but I don’t see myself standing down to other photographers because I am a great guitar player. It’s just the same to me. Because I have talent with music, and then I also do photography, I don’t take a secondary position, going, ‘Oh, it’s only photography.’ I’m full on!” he says with a laugh.

“Desirer Walks the Streets” shows till April 20 at the BLD Gallery; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. For more information, call (03) 5524-3903 or visit bld-gallery.jp