Politics & Culture

Meet Andrew Tess, New York City's Polaroid Prince

The first-generation American and Tri-State native photographer takes us behind his viewfinder and, in doing so, let's us see him in focus.
Reading time 13 minutes

Photography by Andrew Tess

Andrew Tess never really questioned why he first picked up a camera. It just kind of happened. A shy kid, one who never really felt like he fit in, Andrew found himself more comfortable interacting with his peers from behind the safety of his viewfinder. However, what started out as a form of social lubricant has today become his life’s passion.

In his photography, Andrew, who longs for the romanticism of Old Hollywood, has rejected the technological era in which we now find ourselves. Instead, he opts for a more retro vibe: Polaroids. Andrew has come to be known, well known really, within New York City's fashion and nightlife circles for the Polaroid portraits he takes. His Instagram is chock full of stolen moments frozen in time from some of the most exclusive events. He’s attended the MTV Music Video Awards. He’s been backstage at New York Fashion Week. Earlier this year, Andrew attended the Met Gala where he photographed Katy Perry in her now infamous cheeseburger ensemble and Jared Leto’s custom-made Gucci second head, among others. If there’s an event happening, chances are Andrew will be there, camera in one hand and sharpie in the other – he has his subjects sign the bottom of their portraits. In a way, their signatures have become his signature.

Recently, I tagged along as Andrew stepped backstage at NYC nightlife legend Ladyfag’s annual Pride party Ladyland at the Brooklyn Mirage. I got to see Andrew work his magic as he floated from artist to artist, snapping their pic with his old-school SX70 Polaroid camera. After the dust and glitter had settled, Andrew and I sat down to discuss his photography, his love of queer people, and how he came to reign supreme as New York City’s Prince of Polaroid.

RYAN KILLIAN KRAUSE: Let's start from the beginning. Were you a creative kid growing up?

ANDREW TESS: I grew up in a fairly conservative environment where creativity wasn’t often encouraged. Being creative – or being queer – wasn’t something that made sense to the people around me. I’m a first generation American. My parents immigrated here from Italy and my upbringing had a lot of, I don’t want to say immigrant guilt, but there was a certain pressure. My family had moved to this country and there’s the idea of the American Dream and this notion of having to live up to a certain standard. My family is Italian, Persian, and Jewish, so all of those traditional cultures were intertwined in my house and it makes doing something that’s outside of the norm that much more challenging.

But I’ve always been a creative person. There’s a film - my dad would always film home videos of us – and I remember there’s one where I was three years old and I kept trying to grab the camera. My dad was like, “who do you think you are? Frederico Fellini?” and I was like, “Yes! I am!”

 

RKK: And what about photography? When did you realize that it was your passion?

AT:  It’s funny because I never really realized it growing up, but I was always shooting. I was just something that I liked to do. I liked to capture my friends and capture moments. As a teenager, I would go to hang out with my friends on a Saturday night and shoot on a little point-and-shoot camera I had. It was the same at school. I would be in the hallways and I would just take pictures of my friends while we hung out.

I wasn’t the most popular kid growing up, but using the camera helped me feel a little bit safer and more connected to people. It’s funny because when I moved to New York City for college and I started meeting new people, I would make friends by just picking up and camera and going to photograph people. It was my tool, like how some people use drag as a way to allow themselves to connect with people. I’m not a big drinker and I don’t really do drugs so sometimes it’s much harder to connect with certain people in nightlife scenes, but I could use my camera as an icebreaker. There was a reason to be talking to someone.

"I wasn’t the most popular kid growing up, but using the camera helped me feel a little bit safer and more connected to people."
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RKK: You’re a self-taught photographer, correct? What has that process been like for you?

AT: There’s a lot of work that when I look back I think “what the fuck was I thinking? Why was I making that?” I used to do things that I thought were creative and now I think it’s total bullshit. Perhaps you need to go through a ton of bullshit, though, to eventually get to a place where your art makes sense to you and makes sense with who you are as a human being and an artist.

 

RKK: That feels like an important part of your evolution as an artist.

AT: Yeah, and I’m sure if you give me ten years I’ll look at the work that I’m creating today and have a whole different opinion on it. Maybe ten years from now, I’ll love the work I was doing twenty years ago. I think your relationship with creativity is always changing depending on where you are in your life.

 

RKK: So, why Polaroids? How did they end up becoming your calling card?

AT: It’s going to sound so cliché, but I do love how instant it is. I mean, I shoot with a camera from the 70s, so the processing takes a little longer. It’s always funny because people think the picture will develop in two seconds, but it actually takes a couple of hours for it to fully develop.

As a kid, I started shooting with polaroid, but it was about five years ago that I started going to fashion events with my polaroid camera. I had gotten bored with only shooting on a DSLR. Don't get me wrong, there are so many photographers creating such beautiful work with DSLRs, but I just personally felt like I couldn’t connect with my subjects. I wanted to change it up and do something that felt a little more fun to me.

RKK: The portraits you take evoke such emotion. How do you capture that emotion in just one shot?

AT: When I’m taking someone’s portrait, I’m really looking to capture their personality, to capture who they are. I find that there’s a beauty that shines from within people. Everyone has it, but certain people are willing to be more vulnerable and open, and I try to capture that essence within them. That vulnerability to me is so beautiful. It's something I see in myself, so when I can find it in other people it's really something special. I love that moment that we share together, one-on-one taking the portrait.

 

RKK: How do you break through to access that vulnerability in your subjects?

AT: I think by being myself. Whenever you’re yourself, people can sense that. If I let my guard down, share a little bit of my own vulnerability and a little of my own story, it helps. I try to let my subjects know that I see them and I see their humanity. I let them know that what they care about in life matters to me. That’s the key to everything I think. Everyone wants the same thing. They all want to be seen and to know what they stand for matters to you. We’re all looking for that same validation.

 

RKK: It sounds like a very intimate experience.

AT: Especially on Polaroid. There's this intimate moment that happens between us because it’s only one or sometimes two shots that we’re getting. The process of having them sign the images creates this moment that we freeze in time, which I find very beautiful.

 

RKK: Where did you get the idea to have your subjects sign the bottom of the photograph?

AT: It just came to me. You know when you have one of those light bulb moments? It just goes off in your mind.

 

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"When I’m taking someone’s portrait, I’m really looking to capture their personality, to capture who they are. I find that there’s a beauty that shines from within people."

RKK: Who are your artistic inspirations?

AT: It’s such a wide spectrum of artists. Obviously, Keith Haring and all of the pop artists of the early 80s that were living in the East Village. I think Maripol is brilliant, and she shot these amazing polaroids in the early 80s of some of my favorite people. And Warhol, of course. He shot the most amazing polaroids as well. I’m definitely inspired by and, in a sense, pay homage to all of them. Oh, and Herb Ritts! If I’m going to name a photographer who I am so in love with, it’s Herb Ritts. He shot the most amazing photographs and was able to capture something really special.

I’m also inspired by the people I meet in New York. I’m inspired by authentic people. There are so many brilliant, cool creatives here in the city. For me, a recurring theme has always been about capturing queer people or other people who don’t necessarily fit the social norms or cave to social pressures. I have always felt like an outlier like I don’t fit in, so I’ve always looked for people who I can relate to who perhaps have a little of that in them as well.

 

RKK: Speaking of queer people, let’s talk about the Pride Polaroid Series you shared on your Instagram over Pride Month. What was the inspiration for that project?

AT: Initially, I wanted to do something for Pride that would pay homage to the fact that it’s 50 years since the Stonewall Riots and the fact that it was World Pride. I also wanted to ground it back to New York and the creatives who live in New York today. These are people who I’m so inspired by, who are doing such amazing work, who are really authentic and beautiful people, and who are trailblazers in their own right. It was a really healing process to hear everyone talk about how they relate to being queer and about their connection to Pride.

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RKK: Were there universal messages or feelings in the responses of your subjects?

AT: It feels like everyone has their process, coming out and otherwise. They all have their own relationship with Pride and it’s not black and white. On paper, someone might be the happiest or most excited person, their life may look amazing, but everyone struggles with their sense of identity. We’ve all had to overcome obstacles. Having everyone hold the flag was a way for me to tie everyone’s struggles together with one another and eventually it became less about the flag itself and more about the human.

 

RKK: What about queer people makes them your ideal subjects?

AT: I’m fascinated with queer culture. I think we’re living in such an important time right now when there needs to be an emphasis upon queer people, and people of color, and people of all different shapes and sizes. Everyone needs to be represented. I want to fight for that. I want to be a voice for that representation.

 

RKK: The portraits accompanying this interview were shot over Pride weekend in New York City at the Ladyland Festival. What was your experience at that event?

AT: Honestly, it was amazing. It was wonderful to see so many musicians and get to photograph them. I have fully fallen in love with Rina Sawayama. I feel a little embarrassed to say that because I feel like she’s been popular for a few years now, but seeing her live was so amazing. I cannot get her music out of my head. And Ladyfag is awesome. It was really sweet of her to support me on this project.

"I think we’re living in such an important time right now when there needs to be an emphasis upon queer people, and people of color, and people of all different shapes and sizes. Everyone needs to be represented. I want to fight for that."
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RKK: What’s next for you? What’s on the horizon for Andrew?

AT: That’s an interesting question because I tend to go with the flow and see where life takes me. I’ve done a lot of different work. I’ve made a short film that got into Cannes Film Festival in a category a few years ago. I was doing mixed media paintings for quite some time. I had a series of art that was called Rainy Po that was a tribute to a late friend of mine. So, I kind of just go where my mind takes me. I’ve been doing the polaroids for the last couple of years. Until sometime else strikes me to do something new, I’ll probably continue to do this and try to enjoy my summer.

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