Skip to main content

Muscle Man: Marcus Swanson

Mon 22nd May, 2017

By APA Admin in San Francisco

By Claire Sykes

© Swanson Studio

    Seagulls circled the sky above Marcus Swanson, and he pointed his camera at them and clicked the shutter. A few days later, when he saw those birds soaring again in the first darkroom prints he ever made, those 40 years ago, he felt “mesmerized,” as he puts it. Today he looks back on that afternoon on the Oregon Coast and sees it as the start of what would one day become Swanson Studio.

    Now in its 25th year, the Portland, Oregon-based photography studio “captures the focused intention, in both still and motion, of beautiful moments in athleticism, sports lifestyles and physical activity,” says Swanson. Nike, Adidas, Coke and Microsoft; and agencies such as Wieden+Kennedy, Droga5 and The Richards Group, among others, have turned to his studio for images of Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, NBA and NFL players, and other famous names. The unfamiliar also have flipped, floated, dashed and sat before the lens in the company’s 6,000-square-foot former-print-shop space and on site. Swanson’s images of running shoes, track pants and sports watches join those for Diet Coke, Powerade and Starbucks, appearing in magazine and television ads, brochures, billboards and catalogues. 

     Making it all happen is Swanson’s collaborative team of producers, photography assistants, digital imaging technicians (DITs) and retouchers. And three killer photographers, who bring their own focus to each shoot. For Paul Wegman it’s an editorial, documentary-type message. Tyler Ashlock’s conceptual approach stretches conventional boundaries. Swanson tackles the directorial, in motion’s deeper point of view.  

     Cameras have landed in Swanson’s hands since he was 16, combining his love of photography with sports. Then came photojournalism in college, for a while anyway. He quit Portland State University three years in, when he decided that working as an assistant to a couple of Nike photographers fit him far better. He continued to learn by doing, in New York City with world-class advertising photographer Klaus Lucka, for six months, earning enough to go to Japan to follow in the footsteps of a mentor of his. After two months taking pictures all over East Asia, Swanson came home, but went right back to Japan, thinking just a year. It turned into seven, living in Tokyo where he started his own business photographing electronics and cars.

    When he returned to Portland, Swanson freelanced for Ziba Design and Nike, to start. He also continued to work for Japanese clients like Chrysler Japan, JVC and Hitachi; and often shot, produced and translated for Japanese clients in the US. Within three years, he had hired an assistant, a producer and a bookkeeper, and the studio began specializing in the world of sports and its gear. Success followed with every shoot, but that wasn’t enough. By 2010, their inspirational muscles were in desperate need of a good workout. 

     So Swanson came up with “20/2.” The three photographers collaborated on creating 20 test concepts, giving themselves only two months to do it. And they did it for free, and on their own terms and time—answering to their true, artistic selves, not to any client. Wanting to share their work and spread the inspiration, they held a one-night-only private event for other creatives in town. Every year for the next three, Swanson Studio did a “20/2.” 

      Two years passed before the fifth and final “20/2,” just this last spring, arriving at a total of 100 concepts in both still and motion. Since the first one, Swanson Studio had done everything themselves—making, editing and displaying the images. For this “20/2” they still created the images, but for the first time they invited outside collaborators. Twenty-three designers, editors and writers, mostly from the US but also abroad, got in on the game. Most of them pro bono. 

     For Swanson Studio, it’s just like a sports team or that flock of seagulls—joining together toward a common goal. Whether it’s photographs for “20/2” or a video for Nike, as visual storytellers, says Swanson, “we express the Spirit of Sport, inspiring the athlete in all of us.” 

© Swanson Studio

What exactly do you mean by the Spirit of Sport? 

It’s the spirit of play, perseverance, performance and achievement all wrapped up together. The creative process starts with play, and aspiration. But to get better, you have to persevere, and with that, you perform; and then you achieve. Then there’s the beauty of sport, itself, which originates from two traits from caveman days: the desire to play and inherent warrior-like instincts. They’re the basis of learning survival skills of agility, movement and response. Sport, whether it’s creating an image or kicking a football, really starts with play. 

What are your sports, and why does the world of sport matter so much to you? 

Snowboarding, surfing, cycling and running, since I was a kid. Sport embodies the primary principles of human endeavor, and brings our physical bodies, mental toughness and playful nature together. It celebrates the very essence of who we are, and the incredible human aspiration and achievement that we all connect with. Only one person scores the winning point, but 100,000 people jump to their feet and scream at the top of their lungs. That’s the power of the Spirit of Sport, whether it’s winning the World Cup or watching kids play kick-and-chase on a playground. Also, sport is a universal language of the human race. There’s no place in the world you can’t go where there isn’t some sort of sport. The other super-interesting thing about sport is that it’s fleeting, since endurance, power, agility and performance are all fleeting aspects of the human body. While in Japan I was fascinated by the story of samurai warriors. They spend their lives growing to be strong, but could be cut down in an instant. And that’s why the Japanese love to celebrate cherry blossoms. Because they’re a symbol of the samurai’s struggle, and of the fleetingness of life.

What do you enjoy most about photographing the sports lifestyle?

It’s that fleetingness. I’ve photographed many athletes on their way up to fame and down from it, at their peak and now shunned, recovering or having just won a national championship. Whatever their situation, it’s always fleeting. So I love capturing and interpreting an artful moment in humans’ history of sport and that of an athlete’s. The image depicts human play, perseverance, performance and achievement as art. And the viewer immediately understands that. It goes back to the universal language of sport. 

Who is the athlete in you when you’re photographing?

It’s the same athlete in the viewer that’s celebrated when they see that picture. When you see that moment of play, perseverance, performance and achievement in a photo, you get to go along for the ride. As a photographer, I’m part of that moment by telling its story in an artful way, knowing the image is the bridge for other people to experience it, too. It’s contagious, as in “I want to try that,” or “Wow, that’s amazing.”

How do all of you at Swanson Studio live the Spirit of Sport in the way you work?

We each have different roles, but interact just like a sports team. There’s always a playfulness and a competition, but we’re also very supportive of each other. Collaboration is the key formula, and part of the creative process for us. That’s why I have a studio with others. Working on your own can limit your ability to see things anew. I love the exploratory nature of each project having its own, unique parameters. What are we trying to achieve? What are the dynamics to work with? We all benefit by sharing our different ideas, perspectives and experiences, while also operating from those we have in common. It happens daily, working together toward the same achievements. And when we collaborate with clients, all of us learn and grow. Hopefully, in working with us, they also experience the unexpected things they haven’t necessarily thought of before.

How much is the subject involved in a shoot?

Because we’re crafting stories, not shooting events, our nature is to be interactive with the athlete. But they have first say about how willing they are to “play,” and many top-tier athletes aren’t willing. When they are, there’s a true collaboration, and that’s really special. When they’re not, we’ve often changed someone’s mind. If an athlete sees that we’re on our game and making it worth their while, they’re more likely to collaborate. One time I was photographing one of the top sprinters in the world, but he didn’t want to be there, and he was really shy. When I told him that the client wanted me to get some shots of him smiling, he looked at me like, “You gotta be kidding.” So I said, “I want you to think about someone you really love. Picture that person.” And a smile exploded on his face. Unfortunately, I was standing too close to him, so I didn’t get that first-smile picture. But since he’d done it, it broke the ice, and I was able to coax another smile out of him. And saying goodbye was touching, because I got into his heart. It was so beautiful. And we got the shot that we needed.

What is it about you that’s able to reach so far in like that? You’re such a warm person and easy to talk with. But what are you aware of about yourself?

I’m really curious about people, and I admire and love the nature of sport and athletes, in particular. And I have huge respect for them, their time and how incredibly hard they work. So it’s very easy to hold them up. All my work is celebratory, so if an athlete knows I’m to celebrate them, what’s the fight against that? I’ve photographed Lance Armstrong, a perfect example of an absolute beast of a man on top of the world, and it all came crashing down around him. Tiger Woods is another. But I’m not looking for anything negative in an athlete, only positive. I’m also aware that the very nature of sport is that if you want a position on the team, you have to earn it. It’s the same when working with athletes. If you want them to jump or run on the set, you have to earn it. First, you have to show that you know what you want; and second, that you’ve got your shit together and you’re ready and you’re not going to waste their time. They’re a pro. Are you?

What else do you consider before you do a still or motion shoot?

© Swanson Studio

The first thing is, What’s the story? And then, What’s the perspective? How are we trying to tell that story? What message do we want to leave the people that see it? Power? Achievement? A moment in time? Wonder? A little seed of inspiration? Then when it comes to props, lighting, environment and composition, those all are part of a visual storytelling language, in the same way that letters form words. Using this language, we craft emotional experiences: If you want a more intense emotion, more excitement, elevate the contrast of light and dark, color and texture. If you want it calmer and quieter, use affinity of contrast. Sharp angles heighten interest; smooth, round shapes soothe. Perspective is another element. Wide-angle lenses bring people close in, like you’re right with them, and can easily relate to them. With a telephoto, you feel removed, not as intimate. With motion, you can go deeper into a story. It’s a deeper thought, whereas stills are more of a sketch. It all comes down to craft. We use the visual language of storytelling to craft our images, to leave the viewer with a sense of the moment that we want them to feel. Post-production has always been a part of our craft and storytelling, since we started retouching and editing in the studio, more than a decade ago. It’s a natural extension of the creative intention we carry into every shoot, following that intention all the way through. 

What have been some of your most challenging shoots?

The most challenging ones are those we want to do so badly we’ll do them for ourselves. It’s one thing to do a shoot for a client, who already comes with a story they’re trying to tell. You’re working within their parameters and you collaborate, for sure, but in the end, it’s not about you, it’s about them. That’s the nature of commercial advertising; it’s art with commerce. But it’s much more challenging to invest our own time and energy to come up with the stories and how we’re going to tell them, to please ourselves. 

all images (c) Swanson Studio

And this brings us to “20/2.”

When we started “20/2” in 2010, our goal was to invest in ourselves, do our own work and flex our creative muscles to a level where we could be satisfied. As a studio, we were really busy, but feeling uninspired, and we weren’t working creatively. The questions for me were, How do we fuel our own inspiration? How do we get excited about creativity, again? We wanted to do it for free because if you’re going to pay for it yourself, you’d better be excited about it. And we needed a tight deadline because we wanted to push ourselves. And we did, hauling ass while doing all our other work for clients. “20/2” has allowed us to pump our inspiration muscle. If you don’t train it, you won’t be in shape when a client knocks on the door asking for it.

How has “20/2” helped you attract more business that keeps you inspired? 

We’ve used “20/2” as an opportunity to learn new technologies and processes, and create bodies of work around them to show to clients, work they hadn’t ever thought of. That’s when you become the steering wheel for your own direction. With “20/2,” we decided what we wanted to do and did it, which meant changing our own perceptions of ourselves, first, and then demonstrating that by showing it to other people, through our work. Too many creatives complain they don’t get a certain type of work. That’s because you’ve never shown that you can do it. It’s a “build it and they will come.”

The best way to get designers’ attention was to create a private single-evening event for Portland’s creative community. The first year, 150 came to our studio. The “20/2” event is actually an experiential marketing event, since it invites attendees to experience our work, and Swanson Studio’s expression of its brand through our creativity. The “20/2” events also show our own excitement for the work. Clients have hired us for that as much as for the work, itself. But whether they’ve attended a “20/2” event, or have only seen the books we’ve created of the work or a film of it on our website, they see that we’re excited about what we do. They want collaborative partners that let that excitement, creativity and inspiration speak through the work they do. 

Shortly after our first “20/2” event, Nike designers turned to a page in the book and asked, “Can we do something like that?” By the end of that year, they commissioned us to go around the country and shoot 32 NFL athletes for Nike. The second year, we added a little motion to “20/2.” From that directly, Nike hired us again, to do a small web video for the Super Bowl. By year three, I wanted to do motion really well, so I went down to L.A. and learned to shoot broadcast-quality motion with the RED Digital Cinema Camera, which I bought and taught our photographers to use. A year later, I did my first broadcast piece, for Starbucks. By now, I found I wanted to do still in motion, slow motion in particular, using a Phantom high-speed digital camera. So I rented one and got trained and certified as a Phantom tech, and bought the camera, while creating work for year four’s “20/2.” As a result, Wieden+Kennedy hired us to do a whole series of Phantom-filmed Coca-Cola spots, and also stills. From our most recent “20/2” event this past March, which drew 400 people, our first job came as a referral from Wieden+Kennedy to The Richards Group, to do a motion and still shoot of an Olympic skier, in Mammoth, California.

Your four other “20/2”s were annual challenges and events. Why did two years pass before your last one?

After doing it for four years in a row, business grew so much that we were running at 110 percent. From all the heat of “20/2,” we suffered serious burnout; we literally couldn’t take on another project. And a third of our staff quit within one month. But the beautiful thing about that was we learned who wanted to stay and align themselves with what we were doing, even if we weren’t sure what that was anymore at that point. With such success from the four “20/2”s, paradoxically, we had lost our way. We needed to get back to our foundational principles. So during those two years between the fourth and fifth “20/2,” I hired a consultant for the first time and he interviewed me and the entire staff, and ran a series of workshops with us to help us figure out what we really wanted to do, as a studio. Once we reestablished ourselves, we were ready to go again with another “20/2,” but something had to give. So we loosened the reins on the number of months and made it six, instead of two. But that wasn’t just to take the pressure off of us. We thought it was far more important for collaboration with others to be the driving force, and knew that working within other people’s time constraints or availability would require us to give them that extra time, too.

Why did you involve yourselves with those outside of Swanson to collaborate with you for your most recent “20/2?” And who were they?

We wanted to tie “20/2” more into the community. So we reached out and got the collective enthusiasm, and production, editorial, sound, music, catering and display support of 23 incredibly creative people—including those from Wieden+Kennedy, Adidas, Nike, Google and We Are Golden, a design studio in Leeds, UK. Pulling the whole event together was satis&fy, international leaders in event and media technology, and scenic design. It was their decision to hang our huge portraits of girl gymnasts from the ceiling, in two rows at an angle. And it was their giant, curved video screens, and others double-sided and transparent, that showed our video images. 

Why did nearly every one of them do it for free? 

They have a voracious appetite to do the work that flexes their inspirational muscles, and “20/2” gave them a lot of creative freedom. You can find that on the job, but there are also creative limitations. The real turning point for many people, though, was being part of something larger, by sharing with the Portland creative community at the “20/2” event. “20/2” has become a collective legacy that is so much greater than Swanson Studio. We made something that’s now interwoven into the community, and into our DNA as a studio. And we all find that incredibly inspiring.

What kind of promotional spin-offs for you have come from this last “20/2?”

In April, I presented “20/2” at a Portland PechaKucha Night [informal public gatherings held in 900 cities around the world, where presenters show 20 concepts and talk for 20 seconds about each]. In June, I’ll be giving a “20/2” talk at Design Speaks here in town, too. That month, I’m also going to be a judge for the Golden Trailer Awards in Hollywood. The seeds we plant throughout the year will continue to sprout opportunities.

What else is next for Swanson Studio?

We’ve reached that golden mark of 100 test concepts with our fifth “20/2,” so we won’t be doing anymore of them. Now it’s up to us to come up with something different, and we want to do it by about this time next year. Stale is the last thing we want; that’s completely counter to what “20/2” is all about. I have a couple ideas. Maybe it’ll be fewer concepts, but deeper into storytelling; maybe it’s a feature film. We also want to take the last “20/2”’s concepts around the world, starting with New York City and Seattle, into galleries, ad and creative agencies, schools and places where people can be inspired by a photography studio in Portland that cared enough to do test shoots 100 times and hold five events for them over seven years. And in general, I want to really grow the Spirit of Sport, traveling the world and creating visual stories of athletes, sports lifestyles, and the physically active and playful. It’s fitting, given that sport is an international language, telling stories in every country. Whatever we do, we’ll keep pumping the inspiration muscle.


Photo of Marcus Swanson

© 2017 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

Sign-up to receive our latest news

Includes chapter events, photographer interviews, partner discounts, industry trends, and more.