From the stage to the still: The life of a Toronto concert photographer

By: Patrick Ritcey

Enjoying concerts around Toronto is one thing, but getting paid to do so is another. At only 22 years old, Mac Downey has been grinding the nine-to-five, capturing photos of some of Toronto’s best up-and-coming rap and hip-hop artists and Canadian top-charters. Oh, and did we mention he hustles the night-life photography grind all while in school full-time?

Mac has captured artists including Lights, ThisIsFridaee, YungBlud, Myer Clarity, Skevious Tips, July Talk and more. I had the opportunity to catch up with Mac to chat about what life is like behind the lens.

ho99o9 Live at The Velvet Underground

Winslow: Firstly, how and why did you start doing concert photography?

Mac Downey: I got into photography kind of out of the blue. During my first years in college, I became a concert fiend, attending every hip-hop show I could. I soon found my bank account couldn’t handle it. While in college, I did a short documentary on hip-hop photographer Drew Yorke. I was a huge fan of his work and never believed I could ever do what he does, but he gave me the advice to join a publication in order to get into shows. I joined the Come Up Show soon after as a social media associate. I would help run their social media and, in return, get into shows for free.

About six months into the position, an opening appeared for Ho99o9, and none of the Come Up Show’s photographers had signed up. I asked if it is okay for myself to shoot it since the act was underground enough at the time that the photos weren’t the highest priority for the publication. My boss allowed me to shoot them because I was a genuine fan of Ho99o9 and he didn’t want someone who didn't know them shooting them. Following that show, my boss was impressed enough with my photos to have me join the photographers. I honestly never thought this would happen, but sometimes things just happen. So, don’t give up on your dreams, they sometimes just fall into place.

Winslow: Between school and shooting concerts, how did you find time to sleep or socialize?

Mac Downey: This is a question I get a lot. I always wanted to be a part of this community, to be one of those photographers who made it onto publication’s Instagram, Twitter, websites, magazines, etc. So, when I got the opportunity, I told myself I’m going to give it my all. While this career is fun, it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of unpaid work. I wasn’t paid for a single show in my first year of doing this. At the time, I was attending Sheridan College in Oakville. I would trek by Go-train t o Toronto only to return by 3 a.m., edit photos and then head to class at 8 a.m. I was certainly tired, but you have to go the extra mile for your dreams.

Winslow: Top 3 artists you have photographed so far?

Mac Downey: That’s a tough one, it doesn’t even come down to the quality of the photos I took at the concert, but more so the experience itself. I’m lucky enough to sometimes be granted special perks such as access to normally inaccessible areas or the photo pit directly in front of the stage, which really can make a show insanely memorable.

1 – RA The Rugged Man live at Club 120 (August 11, 2017)

RA The Rugged Man Live at Club 120

RA The Rugged Man is personally my favourite rapper of all time and somehow I got lucky enough to be able to shoot him early in my career. The venue was smaller and was very easy going. They allowed me to climb tables and go onto the stage to get the perfect shot. He had grown men crowd surfing and even performed while holding his toddler daughter in his arms. I really was star struck the whole show as I never thought I see RA the Rugged man live, let allow this up close.

2 – Ghostemane live at Adelaide Hall (November 17th, 2017)

Ghostemane Live at Adelaide Hall

Ghostemane is definitely an acquired taste in the rap community. For those unaware, he’s a Florida rapper that is kind of a cross between rap and experimental metal. This was Ghostemane’s first headlining concert in Toronto. The venue quickly filled to the peak and it became a sold-out show. When Ghostemane went on, the crowd exploded. It felt as if I was at a metal show. I found myself checking my camera for damages every couple shots feeling that someone may have kicked it. Truly an exhilarating show to shoot. Also, I should note that Ghostemane is one of the nicest performers I’ve ever seen. Talking positivity in a soft-spoken voice between songs and making sure the crowd was okay after an intense mosh.

3 – 2 Chainz with support from CMDWN & Murda Beats live at Rebel for Canadian Music Week (May 13, 2018)

CMDWN Live at Rebel

It’s hard to find somebody nowadays that doesn’t know 2 Chainz; from his concerts, Vice TV show or social media antics. He headlined the finale of Canadian Music Week at Rebel. I arrived early and was placed in the photo pit. This at the time was the biggest show I’d ever shot. I could look back into the crowd and see 2,000 people waiting for the man himself to take the stage. The opener CMDWN I had seen already twice as a fan, so being able to shoot them already a delight. Murda Beats followed with special guests Jimmy Prime and Smoke Dawg (R.I.P.). When 2 Chainz hit the stage, the crowd was already amped from the openers. 2 Chainz honestly is just an incredible performer. His stage presence is hard to beat.

Winslow: Who would be your dream artist to photograph?

Mac Downey: That’s really is a tough one, as it seems to change with new music constantly being released. At the moment my top five dream artists to shoot are Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, Aerosmith (I used to love classic rock and they’re still my favourite), Young Thug & Lil Yatchy... but knowing me, I’ll probably have this changed in a month.

July Talk - CBC Music Festival at Echo Beach

Winslow: You seem to primarily focus on the hip-hop and rap scenes in Toronto. But I’m wondering, which photography gig did you feel most outside of your comfort zone?

Mac Downey: CBC Music Festival at Echo Beach was probably when I felt most outside of my comfort zone, but for not the reasons you may think. I really wanted to shoot the festival for Charlotte Day Wilson & Tobi. But besides that, I didn’t really know the other acts very well. It was a rock festival for the most part, so none of the photographers I regularly see were there. I just felt very out of place amongst the crowd because I didn’t know key points in the songs to plan for the shot and so on. Still was a good experience, but the security of knowing I’m truly on top of everything wasn’t there for all the acts.

Lights Live at Yonge & Dundas for NXNE

Winslow: How has your style changed since you started?

Mac Downey: When I first started, I found myself very glued to one spot, scared to leave it in case I couldn’t find another place to shoot from. But now I find I’ve gained the confidence to move amongst the crowd when there’s no photo pit. Honestly, being polite as you move amongst the crowd will get you far. My editing of photo style itself hasn’t directly changed, more so I’ve just gotten better at it with each show.

Winslow: Besides the camera, memory card and lenses, what is something that you absolutely need to bring with you to every concert?

Mac Downey: Comfy clothes. While this gig is a lot of fun, it’s also a lot of waiting. Photographers almost always have to arrive much earlier than when the artist goes on. So being able to comfortably wait always weighs out looking stylish. As well as stated before, simply bring a good attitude and politeness. Nobody is trying to make it harder for you when your name doesn’t appear on the list (which happens), security isn’t trying to give you a hard time. Just be polite and they will most likely help you out.

2 Chainz Live at Rebel

Winslow: Would you say your photography has had any influence over any of your other artistic work or life in general?

Mac Downey: It may sound silly to say, but I can’t often listen to music or go to concerts like I used to. When I listen to music I now take in key parts of the song where a good photo would probably happen; when the bass hits, when a powerful verse comes, you learn to know when to expect cool movement for a shot. When I go to concerts now, I still enjoy them, but I often find myself thinking, “damn, that would have been a great shot, wish I had my camera.”

Winslow: What’s your wildest story from a show you shot?

Mac Downey: HoodRich Pablo Juan takes the cake. It was back in November of last year at Launda House. I was hired by one of the openers to shoot their performance and I would be allowed to stay later to shoot HoodRich. People randomly took the stage as nobody knew the order of the openers. Security seemed to disappear; people were smoking weed inside carefree, drinks were spilled with nobody cleaning up and tickets seemed to no longer matter. To add to the madness, a twerk off or something began while the show still went on. There were so many moving pieces to that event that kept adding to the madness. The show got shut down around 2 a.m. It was a fun night, but one of those nights where you honestly don’t know how all that madness could happen in a real venue in the city.

Jessie Reyez Live at Danforth Music Hall

Winslow: Do you have any advice to young photographers or concert goers?

Mac Downey: My best advice is to simply apply to shoot. A lot of publications (magazines, websites, blogs, etc.) need photographers. They aren’t paid but it will get your foot in the door. I find it's one of those positions more people think it’s not possible so they never apply. For those scared to shoot thinking they lack the skills, nobody is a pro at first. If you look at my photos, there is a noticeable progression in quality. You’ll never get better until you give it a shot. For those that want to test the waters, try to shoot indie concerts. Artists are usually very easy going at these shows and happy to get any exposure. Have a low F-Stop lens. If it’s over F3.5 it's going to be very hard to get photos of anything but blackness in most venues. I used a 50mm F1.8 for most of my career before upgrading.

You can check out Mac’s photography on his official Instagram. All photographs for this article were provided by Mac Downy.

About Patrick Ritcey:

Born and raised in a city just south of Muskoka, Patrick Ritcey always considered his life to be about as interesting as a cup of vanilla yoghurt. After graduating high school and moving to the GTA to pursue film studies, Patrick honed in on his passion for film, writing, food and the art scene of Toronto, which he hopes to share with all the readers of Winslow Magazine

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