INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN WILSON
Photographer for Musicians & Performing Artists
By Rachel L. Cadran
Published in NOMASONHA music zine, June 2005
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
Q & A WITH SUSAN
RLC: What inspired you to begin photographing artists?
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
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
RLC: Were you drawn to art and photography as a child?
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?
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
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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
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!