“I’m not a mystic,” Dave Moser tells us – but after a conversation with him one remains undecided. The 54-year-old Philadelphia-based portrait photographer has traveled the world capturing images of politicians, celebrities and everyone in between. Of course, he is after impressive images, but what motivates him most is the opportunity to form intimate, sometimes spiritual connections with his subjects.
In June, our art director Gail Ghezzi commissioned Moser to photograph five Jersey Shore lifeguards for a feature in the August issue of New Jersey Monthly. “He has a talent,” says Ghezzi, “for lighting his subjects that give them a monumental, statuesque look of power and beauty, regardless of age or profession.”
Read more about Mosers soulful Trial – and see behind-the-scenes footage of him NJM Photo shoot – so below look at his last shots.
You describe yourself as many things – an artist, a father, a husband, a chef, an outdoorsman. The one who particularly caught my attention was a voyeur. What does that mean for you and what do you think came first – being a photographer or being a voyeur?
Rather, it is about the fact that photography is a way of accessing people’s lives. So the photograph takes me to the top of a skyscraper in New York City. Photography makes me want to meet a President. It’s access to places. If you think about it too, if someone is crawling around on the street in rush hour traffic, they’re crazy. But if you put a camera in their hands, they’re just photographers, you know? You can go anywhere and do things with a camera.
I’ve hung from airplanes with a harness before, and I don’t think I could do it without a camera. I’ve abseiled skyscrapers. I photographed surgeries; I had my hands in bodies. But you take away the camera? I would not be okay. But the camera creates something of a distance, an abstraction. It allows me to do these things. I’ve walked on 40-story buildings – the girders – while they were building them. But I’m fine because I’m taking pictures. That’s what I’m concentrating on.
But when my wife came in for the ultrasound, a little peanut flashed on the black and white screen and I almost passed out. Because it’s also personal, the nurse told me. But, I mean, two months earlier I had photographed a bilateral lung transplant where the entire chest cavity is empty.
The camera almost takes away the intimidation factor?
Well, I’m concentrating on something. It’s like surgeons don’t have to go to the bathroom during an operation, you know? Everything kind of falls away and I focus on what I’m doing and I’m happy.
In interviews you have said that you talk directly to the people you photograph and that they often lose their cover as a result. You seem like a very kind, sensitive, inquisitive person at first – I wonder if people might share things about themselves with you, even if you did were not take her picture. But is there anything special or unique about the camera itself that you think makes people open up to you?
No, I think the camera does exactly the opposite. If you put a camera in front of someone, they close themselves. I often try – I hate the term, but – to find out who they are; discover things about them as I photograph. But there is no requirement: I am there to take photos. So before I start photographing anyone, I spend a lot of time just talking to them – explaining what I’m going to do and that they really don’t have to do what I’m asking or answer my questions, but that we’re in the same team. I’ll sign her in and then we’ll just go.
I ask a lot of questions. I’m stupid. I will dance. I’ll ask her to jump. Nobody looks the same after jumping in the air. When you land, you are not the same person. It’s a pretty deep thing. Much of it is indescribable, which I also enjoy.
People become more attractive to me when I photograph them because I get to know them. It’s an intimate process; it’s a human connection. For some people, it’s their job to be on guard, but that’s rare – most people want to play along. When a shoot is over I’m kind of sad because I’ll never see her again. i lose a friend
I feel like I can see what people looked like as children if I photograph them at certain times. It’s when everything falls away and you just look at someone. It’s like being with a child and there’s no cynicism – there’s nothing; there is only she. And it’s really moving.
That is beautiful. Do you sometimes improvise while photographing someone based on something they say, do, or reveal to you?
More often than not, yes. Most of the time I want them to look natural and relaxed and comfortable in their own skin – all of that is power, you know? – and so I look for facial expressions or gestures or Standing places that are comfortable for them. Or sometimes I’ll go against it and make it uncomfortable to see where they return to. Sometimes when they’re uncomfortable, it creates a whole different scenario of reactions and interactions.
I would say that I improvise in terms of the way I work with people. There are questions I ask more often than others to get things going, but then I listen very carefully to what they are saying and try to move the conversation forward. And it depends on the shoot – sometimes it has to be fast and I have to ask a lot of questions and try to make her laugh. And sometimes I have more time and it’s a slower process and I can really engage in a conversation.
And then in terms of lighting – sometimes lighting is about the brand; It’s about the style. But sometimes I light to highlight something about someone, or to create drama, or to create something that is pleasing. So I look at their properties and then change the light to complement them. Sometimes I use really hard light, sometimes super soft light, sometimes the lights from above.
If this job was predictable and the same every day, I couldn’t do it.
From your portrait motifs you have said that for you it is “of the utmost importance” to “present a sense of understanding and dignity and convey that to the audience”. Do you have a specific idea of why you value this practice?
I did a lot of street portraits in college and almost always got the subject’s permission. The only time I didn’t ask permission was when I felt it would change the situation so much that it wouldn’t be an image anymore. But I often went up anyway and talked to people afterwards. And this isn’t a judgment on other forms of photography or how other people take photos – it’s about how I do it – but I don’t want anything to be faked. I’m not a photojournalist; I see myself as a portrait photographer, commercial or artistic portrait photographer – editing, whatever. I want people to know that I’m photographing them. I want the directness. You don’t have to make eye contact, but it is the interaction; it is the connection that is so important to me.
Probably 10 years ago I realized that I don’t take photos persons, I would do something else for a living. That’s not to say I don’t love photography, I don’t love photography, I love lighting, I love traveling – all those things I love – but people are my main focus. It is this intimate connection with them.
I’m in someone’s life for a period of time, and then I’m gone. And I feel that everyone deserves respect and dignity. Everyone is worth understanding.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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