If you are poised to be an accountant or financier but can’t bear the thought, what do you do instead?
If you are Andrew Querner, you meet a guy in University who introduces you to mountain climbing. You become obsessed with climbing the granite spires that rise from the glaciers of British Columbia, Alberta and Patagonia. You are drawn to the aesthetics of the mountain. You dream of climbing that perfect line that towers into the clouds.
But it starts even further back. As a child, you saw a photo in a kid’s National Geographic publication called World Magazine and it stayed with you forever. It’s a picture of a man on a snowy, knife-edged mountain ridge and he’s dug out a spot just wide enough for his tent. On either side of his tent is an abyss. Thirty years later, you can still see that photo in your head. You never could have known at first glance the impact it would have.
This photo would seed a trifecta of mirrored passions: the mountain, the picture and the abyss. Over the meandering years, you find yourself at the top of snowy mountain ridges and now you are the one taking pictures. There, looking down, you find comfort and freedom in your fear and uncertainty; there, you find the compulsion and the courage to make pictures.
THE LANGUAGE OF CLIMBING
We walk down a garden path through a bed of planted trees and green grass. He lives in a small North Vancouver rancher. The door opens to a large, bright, uncluttered kitchen. The beach wood cabinets and the white light of early afternoon make the room feel warm. It’s all so clean.
Andrew is a gentle person. He has an inner stillness that I admire. He speaks slowly and deliberately and often pauses to look up and to the side, contemplating his thoughtful responses.
In a Nordic knit sweater he makes me coffee in the kitchen as we talk. The conversation begins where it always does: How did you start?
Being enthralled by the beauty, complexity and geological wonder of granite mountains— that’s how it started for him. He explains that to climb a mountain is to learn new ways of moving, a new body language. You learn to conform to the mountain’s walls and slide your fingers and hands and sometimes your whole body in the cracks that riddle the granite mass.
“It is spiritual. It’s pretty rare in your everyday life to have that perspective. Going into the mountains and getting pushed around by weather and terrain. It’s really humbling. It feels like you’re a visitor there and it makes you appreciate the bigger picture. ”
Through a pristinely white hallway, we enter his living room studio. It’s neatly arranged with magazines in piles on the floor and collections of photos and portraits—by him and others— along all the walls, resting on shelves and mantles. A small bust sits in a corner. A wide narrow window near the top of the ceiling is home to plants, books and more photos.
Classical music plays softly in the background as he pulls out publications to show me. The photo series he flips to I recognize from his online portfolio. Titled, Shelter From the Storm, this photo series is Andrew’s first real body of work; a collection of striking black and white photos of young men holding on tightly to angular rock faces, trying desperately to make upward progress.
“I wasn’t very good at climbing and this whole project is about that. There’s all these factors conspiring to make you fail when you’re out there. The higher you get off the ground, the harder it is to actually retreat. You get to a point where it’s going to be easier to go up and over than it is to go down. Being comfortable in the unknown is part of what makes a good climber. That’s why these pictures are kind of dark. “
I look up at him. “Do you feel more comfortable with that now, the idea of uncertainty and doubt?”
“I stopped doing serious mountain climbing but the uncertainty took on a new form in photography. Now, I embrace it,” he responds.
“How has that changed your life?” I ask.
“I guess I wouldn’t be a photographer because becoming a fine art, editorial photographer is, in my experience, all about uncertainty. There’s no financial security, you don’t know what you’re doing in the next three months. You have to be comfortable putting all this energy into making these projects and not knowing if you’re on the right track or how they’ll be received.”
We make our way to the opposite side of the room and sit on the floor, cross legged underneath the wide, narrow window.He tells me that he’s not the kind of photographer that walks around with a camera in hand.
As a self-identified portrait and documentary photographer, he believes in the art of storytelling:
“I don’t often take pictures without some kind of narrative or greater idea in mind. I need that. I might be employing a documentary aesthetic— I pull images from the real world but then I’m manipulating through sequencing, through framing, through composition. I’m manipulating what those pictures as a group say. It’s a truth, but it’s my own truth, it’s not an overall truth. ”
In portraiture as in documentary, it is a kind of truthful representation that is intended, however subjective that truth may be. Portraitures’ long history as a formal practice in painting precedes Andrew by centuries, but through his own practice of making pictures he perceives intuitively that which makes a great portrait.
“I don’t think a photograph can capture the essence of a person, and I don’t really seek to do that. For me, it’s more about conveying a sense that this person is complex and creating a picture that retains a sense of mystery, They need to beg more questions than they offer answers. That’s something that I take on in portraiture.”
The first picture that appears on Andrew’s website feels familiar. Taken from a distance across a green tinted river stand two young girls in the far right of the frame in one-piece bathing suits. Behind them are the deep green coniferous trees of British Columbia. It’s from a body of work called Watershed, composed mostly of portraits of glistening adolescents. They’ve just emerged from the water.
“I haven’t figured out exactly what it’s about yet. Watershed is something I’ve been shooting in Lynn Canyon. It’s this place with steep walled canyons where people congregate to go swimming and jump off cliffs in the summer. The water is really clear, really cold. The environment is quite gothic; the trees are tall, the canyon walls are tall and you can actually swim up the canyon. It’s a place that I used to go as a kid. “
He pauses for a moment and continues, “moving back to Vancouver I wanted to make work in my own backyard so I started exploring down there. Last June I started making pictures there. There are certain themes emerging, the main one being youth and adolescence. I’m interested in the idea of being on the cusp of adulthood—that transition time.”
I wondered what he hoped to achieve with this project.
“Ultimately…. “, he pauses for a long time. An orchestra reaches a climactic moment in the background.
He continues, tentatively. “For me it’s maybe more about making the work. I don’t really think about what the final product will be or what the pictures will say because I can’t predict where it’s going. What I do know is that I really enjoy making the pictures and I am still surprised and ultimately very grateful when I have an interaction with a stranger. They’re not fully aware of it, what they’re giving me.”
I wonder a lot about this, the relationship between a subject and a documentarian. The interaction is compelled by an unshakeable curiosity on the part of the documentarian and an unbarred vulnerability on the part of the subject. They are bound to each other by a blind and experimental trust. Within the bounds of that trust, between the right people, beautiful stories can be revealed—the kind that beg more questions than answers.
I ask, “Do the ideas that have compelled you to go out and document share anything in common?”
“That’s a good question,” he says. He is silent for a while. ”I guess my first response would be that they come from a desire to understand things from a different perspective.”
“And what perspective is that?”
“Kind of an empathetic perspective. I want to be empathetic with my subjects. I’m just genuinely interested in the experience of another and how the circumstances of people’s lives are different and how people arrive at their own sense of identity. “
For an artist, empathy is a powerful force.
There is so much that we cannot and will not ever know about one another and yet, our curiosity endures. The quiet moments and inner turmoil housed in the muscles and cells of our bodies, the ones that are made in the space between clusters of neurons: this is the well from which we all draw inspiration.
Through light and shadow, Andrew documents his curiosities and his discoveries of the fleeting, personal truths of his subjects, The world around us, people, even objects have some ecstatic truth waiting to be felt.
High above the ground in the frightening space between the fall and the climb, Andrew found something new. He was no longer afraid of the abyss below him—no longer held back by his fear, nor his mortality nor the uncertainty that comes when one chooses passion over money.
The metaphor of the mountain should leave us hopeful. If we can embrace the uncertainty and suspense that obscures the way we can find both freedom and inspiration.
As he walks me down his garden path to his car, we both stop to stare at the Maple tree growing on his front lawn. “It’s been dying for years”, he says softly. Ashen red, the leaves sway and fall to the ground. We stand quietly watching as the whirring air moves the clouds in the sky while a dying tree dances in the wind.
Check out Andrew’s selected works here