An Exploration of Summer Wagner’s Fantastical Wonderland

Midwestern photographer Summer Wagner took a moment to chat with us about her fantastical photography, poetic visuals, and spiritual inspirations. Summer’s work reaches beyond the realm of our world, throwing viewers into a dreamscape that leaves them questioning reality. Summer opened up to us about her arduous journey into the world of NFTs, and how crypto changed her life. In this article, we touch on tarot, journaling, and impossibly dreamy photography. Please note, this conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What are your earliest memories of creating art? Was art always your passion? 

SUMMER: It’s so funny that you asked this question– I just opened up a chest in my apartment that has all of my old journals. I’ve been consistently journaling since I was five or six years old, which is pretty much the only thing I feel very confident bragging about. I’m really impressed with little Summer for consistently journaling at such a young age. I whipped out my first ever journal I had, and it was filled with drawings. I used to draw a picture, and then I would tell my mom to write down what I was thinking about. 

Q: Is journaling still a part of your creative process? 

SUMMER: Oh yes, I still journal. I have close to 30 fully-completed journals in this chest. They’re all what I would consider to be art. It’s like me making poetry and drawing pictures, still to this day. I go back to my journals to draw from them when I’m making art with the camera and writing. Art is something that is alive, and within a person– it can transform and take different shapes. People say that words and speaking is magic, just in the sense that there’s creative power in what words do and how they communicate this ineffable experience of thinking and dreaming. Sometimes I’ll write ideas down, and then those words become art, either visually or I refine them and then I partner those words with an image.

Q: If someone was meeting you for the first time, how would you describe your work? What is the Summer Wagner style? 

SUMMER: I guess I’d say my photography has this big fantasy-realism lean, that also kind of blends a sort of dream-nostalgia within a psychedelic reality.

Art is something that is alive, and within a person– it can transform and take different shapes. People say that words and speaking is magic, just in the sense that there's creative power in what words do and how they communicate this ineffable experience of thinking and dreaming.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you create your pieces? I think many people don’t realize that they’re photographs, and not paintings or digitally created. Can you walk us through how they are made? 

SUMMER: There are a handful of different ways that these pieces come into being. Mostly, it starts with having a sensibility that I am looking to explore. That sensibility will be achieved through finding locations that really speak to me, and then I add props. I’ll kind of collect all of these locations and props and all the lighting and I’ll just begin to explore self-portraiture, and just find what works in these spaces with these items. If what I’m looking to create is set in the daytime, it’s pretty easy shooting. If it’s at night or in a dark space– it’s a different story with the lighting. I do love, love, love using long exposures to create my effects. Whether I’m creating an effect in long exposure or if it’s a daytime shot, I’m trying to find a surreal element just through the way that the camera is positioned.

Q: What sort of effects are you creating with the camera?

SUMMER: I have a piece where a hand is coming out of a tree and when you’re looking at it, you’re like, “this doesn’t make sense– this hand has to be photoshopped in here!” What people don’t know is that it’s actually just the way I’ve angled the camera, and I put my hand in the tree. It’s fun to realize that there are parts of reality that create illusion and because the camera has this precedent that it captures reality, I do like to think of it, myself, as being a little bit of an illusionist.

Q: How did you find yourself leaning into this fantastical style of photography? 

SUMMER: I think that I love playing with fantasy because we experience so much of ourselves through a distorted lens of reality. Our emotional lives are, for lack of a better term, quite magical and dreamlike– even how we remember things. Fantasy is a tool that I like to use to kind of express this gap between how we experience ourselves, and how we tie that to what we know as reality. It’s something that we can think about in photography and represent through fantastical elements. We don’t experience things as cut and dry, black and white, real and not real. There is this blend of reality being experienced in a really dramatic way that seems to bend what you might have believed about the world. Fantasy does a really good job of expressing allegory about other things like what’s happening in the world, and how we create symbols that mean something to a bigger picture idea that can’t be expressed in a single frame.

Q: Some of your work references tarot and magic– do you draw inspiration from spirituality? 

SUMMER: Definitely. I’ve been really wildly inspired by the tarot for at least the last year, maybe more. I think I had this impression that tarot was a magical deck of cards that people haphazardly used to read the future. I’m actually more of a skeptic than you might think. I don’t really have this intense spiritual belief in fantasy things. What I realized about a lot of paganism and these practices, is that they’re actually way more tethered to the use of analogy than I had initially realized. Analogy helps us in the way we process things, and the tarot is exactly that. 

Q: How does tarot influence your art?

SUMMER: Every card represents some obstacle very intricately and very subtly represents a very specific obstacle, an archetype that a person might be encountering in their lives. The whole deck is brilliant. It moves through a journey, of an emotional journey of a person. When you shuffle a deck and pull a handful of cards, you’re creating an emotional story and you could read the cards as this emotional story and then you could project that story onto circumstances in your life. It is a framework to help you work through you. This world is absolute chaos. It 100% doesn’t make any sense, and the tarot is offering a way for you to untangle some of these things that are crazy and happening, all of these emotions, and it’s just a great tool in that way. So it’s really inspired me and I think of making art as a sort of ritual myself. 

Q: How did you get started in the NFT space? What pushed you down the crypto rabbithole? 

SUMMER: I started to take pictures in 2020. About a little less than a year into my taking pictures practice, I fell onto Twitter and just really, really fell in love with the photography community on Twitter. I live in a small city in the Midwest, where there’s not a lot of access to a large creative body. Being on Twitter and having just a really outstanding group of people to meet, talk to, be inspired by, and to share work with was amazing. I was posting the works I was making on Twitter for a few months. Then, a guy- who I didn’t know at the time, but now he’s a friend- reached out to me and said you need to do an NFT collection. At the time, gas was hundreds of dollars, and I was dead broke, bro. This is so funny– but my apartment had actually just gotten hit by a car.

Q: What happened then? Are you alright? 

SUMMER: We were ok, but my apartment was not. It was an absolute shitshow. Literally, the car was in our apartment. It was the one night that neither me or my partner were home. We had been taking turns sleeping on the couch that the guy hit, because it was so hot in our apartment. It was truly a miracle that nobody was hurt. Not to give you my sob story, but I think it’s a pretty powerful testament to how the NFT space can change lives. I was effectively homeless. I was living with friends and had no money, had put everything into slowly trying to build back and replace things. This guy reached out. He helped me. His name is Chadwick Tyler, he’s a wonderful guy, he helped me put a collection together and then sent me the ETH to mint it. In exchange, he bought a couple of the pieces or three the pieces and the collection sold out in a couple of months.

Q: I’m so glad you are alright– that is very generous. Where did you go from there? What was the evolution like to where you are now? 

SUMMER: I did my second collection maybe a little less than a year later and that one sold out in, also, a couple of months. It was minted, but nobody in the space knew who I was. After that, I went to NFT NYC and I met a bunch of people. It really changed my life– because on the plane ride back, all of a sudden, I sold straight up 40 pieces in a week. From there, it’s just been pretty incredible, the amount of love and support for my work. My experience is overwhelmingly positive. It’s really helped me to create a space for myself in this world, in general. Living in a small city, being able to live off my work, being able to now afford to do things like traveling and exploring myself creatively. 

Q: What are you working on next? 

SUMMER: I’m shooting a project starting on Monday where I’ve been able to hire actors and talent and just continue to build the world.All of this is because of this space. There are so many artists out there who are incredible and brilliant people who have to strike gold in order to have the resources and the time to actually make the art. I just hope that the space finds them in the same way that it found me because it’s changed my life.

Author: Georgia O'Eth