ArtWeek Host Spotlight: Susan Wilson
Channeling Beyoncé as Omni Parker House Historian & Host!
by Emily Earle - July 25, 2016
Susan Wilson: Historian, Author, Photographer and ArtWeek Host!
Amongst the countless cemeteries, churches, pubs, theaters and monuments that highlight Boston’s storied past, one certainly has no shortage of sites to explore in and around our state’s capital. It can be truly overwhelming to try and parse why each and every space holds a special place in the annals of the city’s history, but that’s exactly what ArtWeek host and local historian/photographer Susan Wilson dedicates herself to as both her passion and her profession. Trained as a history teacher earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Tufts University, Wilson was inspired to stay in Boston thanks to its rich, cultural heritage and eventually landed in the field of journalism and photography. She worked for a few different newspapers until she was sought out by the Boston Globe to write and photograph for them, specifically on music and the arts.
“Certain places grab onto my heart and won’t let go”
After 18 years at the Globe, Wilson’s editor recognized that she needed some kind of different challenge. Knowing that she had several degrees in history, a monthly column titled “Sites and Insights” was created where Wilson would explore different historical sites around the Boston area and deeply research their stories, mining the spaces for facts and artifacts. She’d then detail her findings through writing and photography, eventually putting her research into a book: Boston Sites and Insights: An Essential Guide to Historic Landmarks In and Around Boston. Her piece on the Parker House hooked her from the start. “I love so many different historic sites in Boston — and have studied and written about dozens of them — but certain places grab onto my heart and won’t let go,” she states. “Such was the case with the Parker House. It’s got all the modern amenities you could want in both lodging and restaurants/bars, but has such a 19th century Olde Boston charm. And because it first opened in 1855, it bears the footprints of many of the most fascinating people in history — and, according to some, their ghosts as well!”
Upon writing her feature, Wilson made fast friends with the Parker House staff and they would routinely request her expertise on a variety of projects. “For a period of almost twenty years, members of the Parker House management and marketing teams would periodically call me to do something special related to their history: appear on a TV or radio show to talk about the hotel, write or give tours, do select research, and even write shorter historic booklets,” she explains.
"Put a ring on it!"
These positive interactions lead to yet another book: “Around 2012, another publishing house approached Parker House General Manager John Murtha, asking if they could do a book on the hotel. John responded, ‘Yes, but only if Susan Wilson writes it.’ After a month of less-than- satisfactory negotiations (in my opinion, the publisher wanted too much control over content, and had little or no sense of design and the use of imagery), John said: ‘Why don’t we create and publish this book ourselves?’” Thus, Heaven, By Hotel Standards was published, but not without a final stipulation that Wilson requested as part of the book deal: “As we began the two-year project, I told John I had one caveat: I wanted to be the official House Historian. Another staff member responded, ‘But we’ve ALWAYS thought of you as our House Historian, Susan.’ So, channeling Beyoncé, I said, ‘Put a ring on it!’ And they did!”
Wilson’s work seamlessly ebbs and flows in an interdisciplinary way, her photography and writing seguing into music and eventually history, which came as a bit of a revelation. “What I didn’t expect was for my old love of history to come into play,” Wilson says. “And that all these things would eventually complement each other. I also have taught over the years — both history and photography, from middle school to college-age students — and that certainly gave me a background in chatting endlessly about subjects that enchant me! And if I can add a digital slide show or a PowerPoint filled with images to that chatting, even better.”
“Boston is a place where history comes alive — where it is part of the present, and informs and enriches the modern day.”
Wilson’s affection for ArtWeek is supported by her lifelong dedication to culture and history and she cites the promotional aspect of ArtWeek’s programming as paramount in raising awareness in promoting stewardship of place. “Many of these talks, tours, performances, and installations existed already, but people don’t always know about them. By having the umbrella (and the advertising and promotion) of ArtWeek Boston, folks know that there is a certain time and place to dig deeper into the culture of the community. It’s pretty much a win-win for everyone.” Wilson also explains how the type of cultural tourism that ArtWeek stimulates benefits the landscape of the City of Boston: “Let’s face it, you always forget about exploring your home turf. If you went to Paris, you’d be deliberately exploring all the culture as part of your trip; but folks can neglect it — or fail to explore it — when it’s in their own backyard, at least until Aunt Tilly comes to visit.”
As to how something like an historical tour of the Parker House fits into the broad spectrum of ArtWeek programming, Wilson looks to the classics: “In The Tempest, Shakespeare famously wrote that, ‘The past is prologue.’ I firmly believe this, and firmly believe also that you can’t understand today without knowing about yesterday. I think people who claim they are bored by history have either (1) never been to Boston, or (2) were stuck memorizing the names of kings, wars, and seemingly meaningless dates when they were in school. Boston is a place where history comes alive — where it is part of the present, and informs and enriches the modern day.”
The love for Boston runs deep in Wilson’s life and career and through her connection to ArtWeek, she’s able to share her passion with both native Bostonians as well as travelers passing through. “I personally tend to fall in love with people and places with deep roots in Boston, and try to share that joy, and these wonderful old human stories, with everyone I have the opportunity to chat with,” Wilson describes. “I’ve noticed such enthusiasm is contagious.” And what’s so great about being an ArtWeek Event Host? “I meet great people from all over the map and from all different disciplines. I get to help them discover a treasure in downtown Boston, and give them some historic stories that really engage their imaginations. And they laugh at my jokes!”
INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN WILSON
Photographer for Musicians & Performing Artists
By Rachel L. Cadran
Published in NOMASONHA music zine, June 2005 www.friekman.com/nomasonha/NoMaSoNHa_june_web.pdf (p.22)
Susan Wilson has achieved national acclaim for her stunning photographs of musicians and performing artists, creating remarkable and timeless images that grace every visual media - from magazines, newspapers, and books to CD covers, inserts, and websites. With great skills, passion, and a unique approach, she is a stellar photographic artist within this very specialized field.
I had the opportunity to speak with Susan, gaining insight on her craft and perspective (it was an amazing discussion that yielded enough content to create multiple feature pieces!) I am grateful for her participation and all of her time, as she is a wonderfully warm and comedic personality with fascinating stories, achievements and pursuits.
Q & A WITH SUSAN
RLC: What inspired you to begin photographing artists?
S.W.: Before I was even a photographer, I was a musician. When I was in my early 20s, I taught school (seventh grade social studies!) during the day and then would go out and play at night- first folk music and then with rock bands.
I few years later, I was taking photo courses in the Museum School in Boston. A guest photographer who was working for a small Boston newspaper came into our class, and said "you're studying photography; you seem to really love it a lot, but I also hear you love music. I've been the only photographer at this publication, and we're now growing. Would you like to shoot our new music section?" So I got my first shooting job when I was still at the Museum School. The assignment involved going into Passim Coffeehouse (now Club Passim) and shooting a singer called Mary McCaslin. I got hooked immediately; and I actually got paid for it -- something like ten dollars! That was the beginning of the switchover of my career.
After that job I got more and more assignments shooting for that and other papers. The thing about working for newspapers is that you get a lot of publicity because your name's there - you could die in poverty, but you get a lot of publicity! People do see your name and say, "I want to shoot with that person." That's how my career grew.
I was still playing guitar a little bit at the time, and one of my first exchanges was with a young musician in Boston who was a guitarist and needed publicity photos. I was learning how to do photography and she was learning how to play the guitar really well, so we traded skills -- a photo shoot for some guitar lessons. Her name was Patty Larkin. Little by little, as I got to know a lot of really exceptional local musicians like Patty, I thought, "Ya know my contribution to this world is gonna be photography." I still have a guitar in the basement but I don't play it anymore (laughing).
RLC: Were you drawn to art and photography as a child?
S.W.: When I was a kid I loved art; I mostly sketched and drew. I think I always had whatever the little Kodak Brownie was popular at the time, but I hardly considered myself a photographer. What's interesting in retrospect is that a major childhood hobby of mine was collecting performers' publicity photos ... movie and TV stars, singers like Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio... So it's kind of interesting I ended up doing promotional photos for performing artists. But the route to my current profession was not a direct one, to say the least!
RLC: How different do you find standard portraiture work from portraiture of artists?
S.W.: If you really talk about "classic portraiture" you're talking about things that often make people look like they have poles up their arses (laughing). I really have a hard time with so-called traditional stock poses - the woman is supposed to tilt her head like this and let her hand gently fall on her chin, while the man should have this "masculine" gesture... ya know. There are classes you can take on standard portraiture where you can actually learn how to make every person look EXACTLY THE SAME. So I'd have to kill myself if I did that for a living.
I think the difference with me was when I started doing this, the first assignments I had were live performance. For many years I worked for newspapers - I started out with very small newspapers and then went on to The Real Paper, The Phoenix and then The Globe. I worked both as a writer and a photographer, covering live concerts as well as doing interviews and shooting backstage portraits. The idea of animation, emotion -- trying to capture something about that person from a live concert situation -- stuck with me.
When I began doing my private commission studio portraits, I wasn't even capable of sitting them down in classic poses -- nobody had ever taught them to me, for starters! I did teach myself how to do the classics, since sometimes that's precisely what the client wants. But just as often I'll have the client dancing, performing, moving around, cracking up laughing, just being themselves. And I'm there with a battery of cameras, capturing the moment - very much like I used to do when I regularly did live concert photography.
When you're photographing a performing artist, you want something that shows the spunk, the animation, the art that's in them -- something that's more than just a beautiful rendering of them. So when I'm shooting I'm very interactive with the client. I shoot what we plan, and then I shoot what we DON'T plan. It's a gas. And it's one of the reasons I continue to do performing artists instead of, say, lawyers or investment bankers!
Very often at the end of a shoot people will say, "It's too bad you don't like your job Susan" (laughing). Because it's so clear I'm having fun, and I'm having fun with the person there. I just adore musicians - I'm nuts and so are they. (laughing)
RLC: Do you find most artists have clear projections on how they want their photos to look and have established details (props, locations, appearance) or do they seek guidance and feedback?
S.W. - Some of them have clear ideas and others I force to have clear ideas (laughing). On my website there's a page called "homework" that asks them to think about what they want to look like, what mood or image they want to project, what props they want to have, whether they want to be in the studio or on location, and so forth. One of the first things I ask them to do is to write down a series of adjectives that describe that image they're trying to portray- whether it's down-home or way New York cool, serious or cracking up, dreamy or sexy, whatever.....
Any given person has bare minimum of fifteen sides I could capture; which of those fifteen parts I'm supposed to be shooting while we're in a session is really up to them --with my expert advice, of course! If someone comes in and they crack up laughing the whole time we're shooting, great. But if the image of themselves they want to sell is intense and serious, we've made a big mistake. I also ask clients to bring in props that folks would identify with them, a couple of outfit changes, favorite munchies, a CD they'd like as background music (or could perform to), a friend, their dog --whatever makes them feel at home, happy, and relaxed. The ideal is for their essence to come through, not for us to create this idealized image of this gorgeous but unidentifiable person.
RLC: Why should a musician hire a professional photographer rather than have a friend do some digital shots of them for free or cheap?
S.W. - I totally understand trying to do your photos cheaply and on your own. Artists are, by and large, starving; there's the 5 or 10% who are richer than god, and then there's everybody else. If you're serious about promoting your career, you need good p.r. photos. With the recent popularity of digital photography and improved auto- exposure and autofocus, people are doing better than ever before using friends and relatives as photographers. Exposures are good, focus is not always good --but is easily deleted when it's bad. What's too often missing, however, is a riveting shot -- something that's akin to a piece of art -- that draws the viewer in PLUS gives a good sense of the individual musician's spirit, character, or presence. And that's really hard to do if you're not a pro.
I worked for the Boston Globe for eighteen years, both as a writer and photographer, and I was aware of all the pictures that came in, and which images the editors picked and which they threw away. The ones they chose for publication often had that extra special something -- maybe it was the mood, the angle, the lighting, the moment captured -- or the feeling that there's some kind of story going on in the picture. THAT's why you hire a pro -- and not just any pro, but a pro who specializes in shooting people in your field.
RLC: What was your most memorable photo shoot/assignment?
S.W. - I love what I'm doing so much -- and I love performing artists so much -- that the vast majority of shoots I do I have a blast doing. In many ways my favorite shoot is the one I did yesterday. But I will tell you a couple of times I still think about and laugh. Once the great rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef came into my studio. He was a contemporary of Elvis Presley and he is just gigantic -- an amazing kind of country-cool, hip, huge guy. When he walked in, the first thing I said was not "It's an honor to meet you," but "Whoa -- how tall are you?" (laughing) He looked straight at me in perfect deadpan, and said in that low, low voice, "Ma'am, I'm five foot eighteen." It took me a moment to realize he was saying six-foot-six. But the way he responded was so amusing, that it totally relaxed me --and I knew we were gonna have fun.
Another time I had this classical string quartet come in -- four lovely women. We started with all the standard classical quartet shots, then moved into animation and fun. Near the end of the session, I asked if there was anything else they'd like to do. And they said, "Yeah we'd like to do some topless shots." I suspect I looked incredulous and went, "Uh, excuse me??!!" (laughing), since nobody had ever asked me that before. Catching my composure, I asked, on a realistic note, what the heck they could do with them if we took them. "Well, we're sure the shots we've done so far will be great for all the stuff we're doing in the U.S., but we want something that's going to be eye-catching on our European tour. We KNOW we can't print or use them in the States, but we'd like to do something special for the European audience." So we proceeded to do very discreet (instruments in all the right places), topless shots of the string quartet, with fans blowing their long hair, and I was just cracking up laughing the whole time. And yes, they did use one!
RLC: What is your primary focus with your current photography work/projects?
S.W.: Well there's the photography you do for pay and the photography you do for yourself. In the best of all worlds, the two intertwine, at least some of the time. My paying work is still primarily focused on musicians, though whom I shoot has evolved over the years. When I started out much of what I did was folk, singer- songwriter, and folk-rock stuff -- I practically lived at Passim. After a few years -- and meeting great talents like Rebecca Parris, Mili Bermejo and Dan Greenspan, and Donna Byrne -- I started doing more jazz and hybrid modern music. Classical came last, and now actually accounts for more than fifty percent of my clientele. It's not that I go after certain clients -- most of my advertising continues to be by word of mouth. But my guess is I see more classical musicians because they have more money than other musicians. Most classical musicians can not only play their own wonderfully creative personal stuff, but also play in big orchestras or small chamber groups, give private music lessons, and can do almost anything; they are generally great sight-readers, so are a dependable staple of wedding ceremonies, theatrical pit orchestras, church services, recording sessions .....you get the drift.
Still, in the United States, in Massachusetts, the last four years have been very hard on everybody in the creative arts. Myself included. So I feel graced to be a part of the scene, in the years of plenty and the years of, er, Bush!
As for my personal projects, the two things I like to do most are exhibiting artwork and creating/performing multimedia shows -- generally involving both music and imagery. I've recently moved from two slide projectors with dissolve units into digital slide shows on LCD projectors. I very much love cemeteries and cemetery art, so my most recent project (entitled "Sacred Grounds, Sacred Sounds") is a collaborative work about Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, and the famous musicians interred there. Pere Lachaise, for anyone into cemeteries, is probably the most famous burying ground in the world. It's two hundred years old and has an extraordinary array of people interred there, ranging from the classical gang like Chopin, Rossini, and Bizet to chanteuse Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison of the Doors. Along with Rebecca Strauss of Riverview Chamber Players, I've recently developed a multimedia show based on Pere Lachaise and these people and their music; we've gone to Paris twice in the past two years. Rebecca and a string quartet, alternating with a flute quartet, play music from various musicians interred at Pere Lachaise, while I project dissolving images and words on a screen behind. If you've never heard a string quartet version of "Light my Fire" and "La Vie en Rose" you ain't heard nothin' (laughing). So that is the art-for- art's-sake project I'm working on right now; it also includes a hanging exhibit of artwork. Soon to be played in a theatre near you!
And, oh yes, forgot to tell you ... I have started studying music again. But I'm now learning accordion. Go figger!