Susan Moss is a friend (and role model) of mine. We met outside a Gossip concert last fall after I struck up a conversation about her gear. We exchanged information, and ever since, she has given me invaluable advice about my own photography.
She exudes rock ‘n roll in its purest form– her raspy voice, unruly red hair, and cool-calm-and-collected attitude make her magnetic. She has always been a people person, and it’s a personality trait that has treated her well.
As a photographer, she has made a name for herself with her fantastic high-contrast pictures and immense knowledge of bands she documents. I met her at Else’s, her regular coffee spot, to discuss how she got started, what it’s like to shoot concerts, and getting hit in the face.
How did you get into photography?
I got a camera in my early twenties, and I didn’t really know anything. I took a night course, and then another night course, and went full time at Dawson College. I was working at a bar nearby that was kind of like Barfly, that had live bands every night, so I was kind of practicing on bands. I mean, I didn’t even know what high ISO was until… but whatever, I got the result. I learned.
It’s something even as a kid, I saw things like [she holds her hand up to her eye as if to imitate a lens]. It’s something I thought about before I actually got the camera. But I couldn’t have dreamt this.
Did you enjoy the feeling of documenting live music?
Yeah, I mean I grew up with lots of live music. My dad played guitar and sang a bit and we went to a lot of shows when I was a kid. I saw the Beach Boys a bunch of times, Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond. Those are the main people my father listened to. I went to a lot of shows. The click doesn’t get old. The click is always satisfying.
Was it a different “click” when it was film as opposed to digital?
Yeah! They’re both satisfying. I kind of miss the winding.
Yeah, I still shoot in film sometimes.
Me too, but I get confused– like do I wind it or not?
What do you shoot with?
I’m a Canon girl. But I just got the Fuji 100S, which is really cool. Lots of lenses, lots of prime lenses.
You also do portraits, but would you say that concert photography is the bulk of your work?
Yes, I would say that. But I was really into portraits during and after school, but taking pictures of live music, that’s pretty awesome. Being in a pit is a crazy adventure.
Do you get an adrenaline rush?
Totally. You only have three songs, and sometimes, if it’s a punk band, the songs are like thirty seconds. And there are strobe lights, and lots of people, some moshing and crowd surfing…
When you’re in the pit, are there security guards simultaneously catching people?
Yeah, I’ve been knocked over by them. I hit my friend in the face with my camera last year at Heavy MTL because I got knocked by a security guard. I’ve been kicked in the head a couple times. Actually, at Heavy MTL, I was kicked in the head twice. Once, I had my camera up to my face, and someone walked by, and…
Did you have a black eye?!
No, surprisingly. When the crowd surfers run by, they’re all like [mockingly waves her hands in the air], and that’s when they hit me. But it’s fine, I love it.
Walk us through the process of shooting a concert. You get to the venue…
I always get there early by at least 15 minutes. Sometimes you’re shooting the opener, sometimes not, it depends. I always take a picture of the marquee. Especially Metropolis– it has a great marquee. I get to the pit, chat with my pit friends. Standard is three songs, no flash. But some bands say two songs or four, but three is standard.
Is it a lot of the same people in the pit at all the shows?
Let’s talk about your impressive client list. What has it been like to grow that?
It took many years. It’s hard. Being a freelancer is hard, even as an established freelancer. To make money at concert photography is hard. I’ve been doing this for 22 years, so it adds up.
You must have done a lot of networking.
I just knew a lot of bands, and so I did networking, and especially now with social networking too.
Tegan and Sara
I remember when we were talking about how it’s so common for people to have DSLRs and semi-professional or professional cameras.
Yeah, it’s weird because back in the day, I literally was one of the only people walking around with a camera, doing street photography. It was rare to see that. But now, it’s like any person walking by. Sometimes people want to hire me, and then in the end, they say their friend has a camera and they’re going to try it, and then they almost always call me. Just because you have a camera, doesn’t mean… you could have a great knife, doesn’t make you a great chef; you could have a great guitar, doesn’t mean you can play guitar.
And as an amateur, you don’t want to be stuck in a situation where you’re not prepared, like shooting a wedding. It’s scary when you’re not prepared for a shoot.
There’s a lot of responsibility in photography.
I get “excited nervous”. I think about it, visualize it, do research. If I’m doing a wedding, I look at a lot of wedding photography, and what inspires me. And I look at my old weddings and see what I like and what I don’t like. I try to be prepared.
The people in your portraits (on your website) look really relaxed. How do you manage to make them feel so calm?
I’m friendly, and outgoing, and myself, and that’s part of what I’m good at, I guess.
I feel like half of being a photographer is being a people person– unless you’re doing landscapes or something.
[Laughs] Yeah, or nature or insects.
What have been some of your favourite gigs?
Osheaga, Heavy MTL, and Funny as Hell. I’m so lucky– almost everything I do now is fun stuff.
Gwar at Heavy MTL
What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?
You’re not doing it for money. You’re doing it because you love it. Keep at it and try to develop your own style.
What’s your favourite thing about Montreal?
Oh my god. I was born here, but I still love it. I love living in the Plateau, the architecture is just ridiculous, it doesn’t get old. There’s so much amazing stuff here, all the festivals, and culture, and artists.
All photos by Susan Moss.