RELEASE DATE: April. 15, 2021

Mt. Freelance Podcast - Episode 102

Marcus Smith

Commercial Photographer

Marcus Smith shares his incredible "How I got started as a photographer" story with Aaron & Andrew. He has gone on to shoot superstars like Serena Williams, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant’s end-of-an-era retirement campaign for Nike.

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31 Min

Episode 102 Marcus Smith Mt. Freelance Podcast Cover Art

Episode Recap

In our second episode Aaron James and Andrew Dickson welcome globe-trotting, commercial photographer Marcus Smith to the Mt. Freelance podcast. 
 
Marcus Smith is a freelance photographer who has shot for the ESPN Body Issue, and created campaigns for Nike and Jordan Brand working with athletes like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and even worked with Aaron on an adidas project with Damian Lillard
 
Marcus went to college for business, but discovered his passion for graphic design and photography creating album covers and fliers for musicians. But it was a personal project documenting a high school basketball team for a season that lead to his incredible career. 
 
In his interview Marcus shares his journey, taking us through the evolution of his personal project, Crew Love, and touching on some of his favorite projects. It’s a must listen for anyone thinking about pursuing their own personal project and looking for ideas on how to support each other as freelancers. 
 
The Mt. Freelance podcast is hand-crafted by the producers, mixers and sound designers of Digital One, right here in Portland Oregon, and sponsored by Stumptown Coffee
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Marcus Smith

Episode 102

 
Intro:
This podcast is brought to you by DigitalOne. Tell your story, connect with your audience and build your brand with an engaging podcast. Learn more at digone.com.
 
Andrew Dickson:
The song did not lie. You are listening to the Mount Freelance Podcast. I am Andrew Dickson, and with me here is...
 
Aaron James:
Aaron James. Andrew, what is this podcast about?
 
Andrew Dickson:
We are going to bring in a premier creative freelancer, probably someone we know and maybe have worked with, and we're going to interview them to glean their experience and advice for fellow freelancers.
 
Aaron James:
Because we believe that there is an abundance out there for freelancers. And as the world turns, there is more and more opportunity for people who desire to be freelancers, but is freelancing easy, Andrew?
 
Andrew Dickson:
Mm Yes... Freelance, it is initially painful but you get better at it, which is why we have not booked anyone for our first season who is starting out as a freelancer.
 
Aaron James:
Right. So we can learn from people who actually do this.
 
Andrew Dickson:
What kind of a person do we have on our podcast today?
 
Aaron James:
We're going to learn from a photographer.
 
Andrew Dickson:
I really like how I didn't have to say who or whom, we just avoided that. And a really incredibly gifted photographer.
 
Aaron James:
Yes. Marcus Smith. He's going to share a little bit of how he got started, and I feel like when we talk to photographers, that is a big part of what they're looking for. It's like how in the world do I break through in this industry? And Marcus is going to share that story with us. He shot Kobe's farewell campaign for Nike. He traveled China with LeBron for Nike.
 
Andrew Dickson:
And with you on a separate occasion, right?
 
Aaron James:
We did a big shoot for Adidas a little while back. And Marcus is an extremely talented guy. 
 
Aaron James:
So welcome Marcus.
 
Marcus Smith:
Thanks Aaron. Thanks for having me.
 
Andrew Dickson:
So, we know what you do, but how do you describe what you do to people when you meet them at a party or something?
 
Marcus Smith:
That's a funny question because I've been having that conversation recently with my wife, with the holidays just passing. I hate talking about myself. So we were joking about, how do I talk about myself? Because when you tell them that you're a photographer, they automatically jump to wedding photography or do you shoot family portraits or kids or something like that. And so I've been trying to figure out a funny cool way to say that's not what I do, but I haven't figured it out yet. So I ended up just being like, "Nah, that's not what I do." I end up just telling them, "I work on brand advertising, campaigns and sometimes I get to work with magazines and do editorial stuff and work with some interesting people and sometimes some celebrities and a lot of cool athletes." So I end up just being real straight man with my explanation. But I really want a more creative way to explain it.
 
Andrew Dickson:
Well, we'll do a little brainstorm, send you a few ideas.
 
Aaron James:
So you and I met, we were able to bring you in on a project that was freelancing for Camp Grizzly up hear in Portland, and we were working on a global running project and I had admired your work for quite a while. I knew of your work from a personal project that you did around basketball, that's when I first saw your work. And that was actually a Wieden+Kennedy, one of the art buyers actually showed me some of that work you did around basketball. And so then when your name came up for this running campaign, we ended up meeting you and being able to shoot in a number of locations around the country, some big athletes and maybe tell us how you got started with photography, how you got started with falling in love with creating images.
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah, for sure. First it goes back to when I was a kid, I started out as any other kid, just using coloring books and trying to draw, and then it evolved. In my teenage years into me getting into rap music and admiring the photos that would be in XXL Magazine or The Source Magazine. And I would try to draw photo realistic photos, I mean, pictures of the photos that I liked from those magazines. I stockpile those magazines until the shelf in my closet was bowling in the middle. And then eventually once I got to college, I didn't go to college with an artistic career in mind. I went to college to study business, just trying to think super practical, but I was still heavy into music and still heavy into just expressing myself through drawing and stuff like that.
 
Marcus Smith:
I was painting on clothes and doing all those types of things just for myself. And then I got a cracked version of a Photoshop that somebody sent me one day, and one day I was bored and just opened it up and started playing around. I had no idea what to do with it and started messing around with different images and stuff, and started doing goofy stuff, the things that you do when you first figure out Photoshop, just throwing crazy filters on things and just discovering like, "Oh, I can manipulate an image." And I started out doing it as jokes, taking images of my friends and trying to put their heads on other people's heads and stuff like that. And then put it on Facebook, trying to get laughs and doing that type of stuff.
 
Marcus Smith:
And then it eventually evolved into just in my free time, me making photo manipulation, taking it serious and making photo manipulations again of mixed tape covers. Mix tapes for rap were big in the early two 2000's or whatever, when I first had gotten a hold of Photoshop so that I was just having fun and goofing around. And then it went from that to, "I need better pictures to do this thing I'm trying to make." And I dug up a crappy camera that somebody had gave me for a graduation gift. It might've cost $30, $40 or something like that. A 1.2 mega pixel Kodak camera or something like that, and I started messing around with that, but the pictures were crappy and at the time I didn't know anything about photography. So I just assumed, if I get a better camera then the pictures are going to be way better and I'll just automatically be good. And so I started begging my mom for an actual DSLR camera, just so I could do that type of stuff. And for my 21st birthday she surprised me and actually got it.
 
Marcus Smith:
And so that was the first steps of me actually taking photography serious because when I took those first few photos that I thought were magically going to be good, they sucked. And then-
 
Aaron James:
Think we've all fallen for that one, right?
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah. And then it frustrated me and then I just started...
 
Aaron James:
It's the camera's fault.
 
Marcus Smith:
Exactly. It's the camera's fault. So I started getting frustrated with that and that just led me to want to research different photography techniques. And I started just... it became basically just like a rabbit hole from there, that I just never stopped going down. And before I knew it, I was just way deep into wanting to take good photos rather than just being stuck on the computer, trying to manipulate images into these other things. I just wanted to take good pictures.
 
Andrew Dickson:
Do you remember, was there one particular image that you remember thinking, "Oh yeah, this is what I was going for. Wow I didn't even know I could do that?"
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah. So, again music was driving everything that I was doing, I had collected album covers and I started paying attention to the liner notes and learning who the photographers were that shot different album covers and whatnot, so that would lead me to research who those photographers were and other work they had done. So Jonathan Mannion at the time became a huge influence for me back then, just because he had worked on so many Jay Z album covers and so many other hip hop artists, when back then that I was listening to at the time, like DMX and photographed Aaliyah most... all that, any hip hop person back then he pretty much photographed him. And so that was really leading the way on how I wanted to see things. And the first time that I knew that I was like, "Man, I'm close. I'm doing something cool." It's like I photograph my friend who was also trying to make music himself.
 
Marcus Smith:
He gave me an excuse and gave me somebody that didn't mind me trying things on them. So we would set little photoshoots up in the atrium of our apartment or in our living room. And I would like do things, concept things, and make stuff with him for different album things that he was working on. And those were the first images that I started to taking and that, I was like, "Man, this looked like something real, this looks like it could be in a magazine or something like that." And I was getting that response from other people that we would show it to, they would be like, "Wow, you all did that right in the living room." And it's like, yeah. That was the first time that I was starting to get that response and I started to know, I was starting to get good at it.
 
Andrew Dickson:
And at what point did you start to think, "Hey, maybe this is what I could do for a living. Maybe there's a career here."
 
Marcus Smith:
Maybe a quarter of the way through senior year. I started getting paid to design album covers and mix tape covers for local DJs that I might've met on the internet that would ask me to design things. And then I came into contact with different local artists through putting my work out on Myspace and stuff like that, that then would ask me not only to design it, but if I could photograph them and then also design whatever the album covers and stuff like that were.
 
Marcus Smith:
I started getting paid for that, that was when I first thought that and then once graduation came up and I got ready to try to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My mom encouraged me to pursue photography as a profession and get more educated on that, and that's when I decided to actually go to school for photography. So I enrolled in a 10 month program where I lived in Turners Falls in Massachusetts, which is two hours outside of Boston. And I lived there going to Hallmark Institute of photography. And that was my first foray into learning more about the careers that were in photography that were out there officially.
 
Aaron James:
When you were in a photo graduate school, was that just the technical things that you needed to learn to be a photographer? Or did they teach you anything about the business side of being a photographer or was it all just technical stuff?
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah, they attempted to teach about the business. It's weird because, I feel like the business of commercial photography is such a evolving and changing business that unless you are actively participating in it, it's almost hard to really teach somebody else. And I don't think that the teachers at the school and no disrespect to them, but they weren't actively involved in the commercial space. So I would say that it probably had more technical knowledge in it for the people that needed that education.
 
Marcus Smith:
But for me... for where I was looking to go, I don't think you need to be as technically sound as you need to be like have a creative vision, because creativity it's not always technical. So a lot of creativity is the wrong way to do a lot of stuff. I think for me, the technical weren't as important but what I did find value in and being there is that it just gave me a stretch of time to be around other people that were also trying to be creative and were into photography. It just gave me a community of people that are just like, be around 24/7. That were into the same thing that I was into and gave me a nearly a year to just concentrate on just getting better at photography.
 
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Aaron James:
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Andrew Dickson:
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Andrew Dickson:
Obviously you didn't graduate from the program in Massachusetts and Wieden+Kennedy, ESPN started calling. We're big proponents of personal projects and giving yourself assignments. Can you talk about for you that assignment you gave yourself that started opening up some doors?
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah. So when I got out of school, I looked at my portfolio and my body of work at that time. I knew that sports was really a huge part of my life growing up. I would go to dinner when I was a kid with basketball shorts under my jeans. So I could... just in case I found a way to play basketball somehow. So that's how big of a deal basketball was for me. So, when I got out of school, I felt when I was looking at everything, I was like, man, that's not really represented in the work that I'm showing people.
 
Marcus Smith:
When I got ready to go back home to Chicago in 2012, I knew that I needed something to do that will bring some awareness and attention to myself. I had been hearing about this kid, Jabari Parker, who was playing at Simeon High School, which is the same school that Derek Rose went to. And so, the Simeon High School is this revered basketball school in Chicago. So the timing of it was perfect for me. So I decided that I wanted to try to do something simple that wouldn't require a lot of money, that I could just focus on and show my visual storytelling skills.
 
Marcus Smith:
And so I decided to basically use my... I had my 7th grade teacher, I found out was the assistant principal there now. So I went over and had a meeting with him and told him what I wanted to do, what I was trying to work on. And he put me in touch with the athletic director, who then put me in touch with the head coach of the basketball team. And I told him what I wanted to do, and he was like, "If the guys say that it's cool, then I'll let you do it." Because they were like, "We turned down ESPN for a documentary thing that was going to cover the whole season." Because, Jabari Parker at that time was a huge deal. Everybody was talking about him, everybody wanted to go to the games and everything.
 
Marcus Smith:
So a few days later he got back to me and just let me know that they had agreed and said, "Yeah, as long as it's just you and this and that. You can come through and come to practice and just photograph what we're doing." So from there, I just started going every day I was in practice, I was riding the bus with them to games and I was at every game and I just became a fixture with the team over that season, which lasted four to five months or whatever. And I spent all that time working on that project doing photo, video, trying to just bring that atmosphere. And just that feel of being in high school, to the photos and bring my... just the look that I had been trying to work on.
 
Marcus Smith:
And I just brought it to that project and put everything into it. And at the end of it, I put together a little art book called Crew Love, and I could only afford at that time to print nine or 10 of them, I kept one. And then I sent the other ones to art directors and a few art directors that I had met when I was working full-time as an assistant for Gary LAN. Fortunately, within a few months of me sending that out, somebody shared it with somebody else and Jordan Brand came and that summer was like, "Hey, we want you to come out to Portland and help us start our Instagram page and just build some content for it." And so I ended up doing that and that led to a few other things. And so, that's how things started with that.
 
Andrew Dickson:
That is such a cool story. And I think it's important to underscore for our listeners that you didn't show up to that high school three times, I think you were going every day, really embedding yourself for four to five months. And it probably what made the project so impactful and powerful.
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah, for sure. It was definitely a labor of love because at that time I was using my business skills, working for my mom, doing payroll and doing accounting and running marketing for her nonprofit organization. And then, in the evening time is when I would go and work on that project. So there was even time on the weekends, and so I think that the variety of photos and the things that came out of it just... that was very much so a part of me establishing the look that I have today, it's still very relevant. So a lot of the images that I create now still look like the stuff from back then.
 
Andrew Dickson:
What's been one of your favorite assignments over the last couple of years. You've worked with some really high profile athletes and celebrities. Is there a one that comes to mind?
 
Marcus Smith:
The first one that comes to mind was probably when I got hired by Nike to go to China with LeBron and just document his time there. At that moment when I was there and doing that, I was just like, "Wow, look how far I am from home and look where I am, and what I'm doing right now, just all because of photography. All because I know how to use this camera." Another one is getting to participate in doing the ESPN body issue. They always hire just top line, best of the best people to participate in that issue. And so I was just like, "Man, if I'm ever in that, then I know that's a validation type of thing." Because they can literally almost hire anybody in the world to do that issue.
 
Marcus Smith:
Everybody wants to be a part of it. You have fashion photographers that have done it, sports advertising, people that have done it. It's just a benchmark thing. It's just letting you know that somebody that knows what good photography is, is saying that you're in the class with all these other people. It's just one of those projects that make you really feel like an artist, because you are doing something that's super creative and it's obviously a very sensitive thing. So it's like a trust level as well with the celebrity athlete that you are assigned to work with, just trusting your vision and trusting that you obviously are going to take care of them. And it's just like the ultimate sign of respect from everybody involved.
 
Marcus Smith:
So that's the other one that comes to mind. And then maybe the last one that comes to mind is the Kobe. You mentioned it earlier. The Kobe farewell stuff, just because, obviously given what has happened with him recently, him passing away. It became a bigger deal, but even at the time that I participated in the actual shoot, which was February 29th, 2016, it's the day we shot it in the LA Coliseum before they took it down. That shoot to me was just like, "Mama I made it." Type of thing.
 
Aaron James:
Now you're at the point where you probably have a lot of aspiring photographers reaching out to you and getting advice, or trying to figure out how they move along. What are a couple of pieces of advice that you offer photographers that are getting started?
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah. The biggest thing that I offered to photographers getting started and even ones that I've started already, and are stuck or figuring out the next steps is, being patient. I'm a big believer of the idea that things don't come to you quicker than you're ready for them. So if you're not ready, then you're not getting it because you're not ready, or because you haven't proven yet that you're ready. So the biggest thing that I tell people is to just be patient and to keep working at it, keep reaching out to people. Don't take it personal when you send an email or something like that to somebody and they don't respond to you. Or, somebody is not head over heels for your work at the time. That doesn't mean that you should be down on yourself or you should stop. It just means that you just, maybe aren't ready yet. You just aren't in a place where you're going to get that visceral reaction yet. And so just patience is the number one thing.
 
Andrew Dickson:
How do you handle the ups and downs of freelance? I'm guessing you're not taking photos every day.
 
Marcus Smith:
The funniest thing about being a freelancer is like, just getting used to the idea of the fact that once you are even hot. Hot doesn't translate into the phone, just ringing off the hook every day. And so I've learned to embrace the downtime in the light, take that time to do other things. Sometimes it's cool to even step away from it and do something else. Watch movies, listen to some music. I started getting into DJing. So that's all just other creative outlets that I have for myself to just release me from the stress of like, "Oh my gosh, nobody's called in two weeks." It just takes my mind off of that. The whole aspect of that.
 
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Aaron James:
As photographers, as their career grows. A lot of the times the next step is representation and having an agent. Well, what was your process with figuring out when to hire an agent and how did you go about picking one?
 
Marcus Smith:
Well, when I got that project going for Jordan Brand and I had the body of work that I had created at that time was getting better and more recognized. I started getting little small projects that every now and then I would get an agency that would ask me to bid on something and I would be really stressed out about it, because they would be using all these terms and stuff that I had never heard of before at the time, or I needed to negotiate rates and stuff like that, that I didn't have any previous knowledge of. So that's when I started to think to myself, maybe I need to explore looking into an agent. So I started doing my research as to looking at the photographers that I admired and seeing who they were represented by and started trying to figure out based off of that, who I might fit in well with.
 
Marcus Smith:
It's funny because the first time that I ever went to LA for business, for my photography business. It was such a whim, I cold emailed an art producer at a TBWA that worked on Gatorade. And I said, "Hey, I saw that you worked on Gatorade. I think that I would be a good fit for that brand, check out my work. And I'd love to meet with you sometime or something like that." And she wrote back, maybe two hours later. And I was not expecting that, I wasn't even expecting a response.
 
Marcus Smith:
And she like, "Oh yeah, you're right. Why don't you come by the agency next time you're in LA." I had never been to LA before, and so I was like... I wrote her back and was like, "I'll be in LA next week." It was Thursday, and I was like, "I'll be in LA next week." And she's like, "Cool, can you come by Tuesday at 3:00?" And I'm like, I don't have a ticket yet anything. And I'm like, yeah. So, then I buy a ticket just... I'm going to just going to figure out how to stay with a friend or something. So I buy a ticket. And then from there I started emailing the same way. I started emailing other people at agencies and even agents that I wanted to meet that were based in LA the same way.
 
Marcus Smith:
And before I knew it, I had a whole week worth of meetings lined up for throughout that whole time. And so two of the agents that I met, and one of them ended up being my agent. I met with Candice out there, and the way that I chose who I wanted to be represented by was honestly, it was not complicated. It was just based off of personality and just their spirit for wanting to do good business. She just seemed like she really cared about the people that she represented and was willing to take the extra steps to making sure that I was comfortable. She even flew out to Chicago, met with my mom and everything. So that just made me feel super comfortable, and we started doing business together and it's been like that since day one.
 
Andrew Dickson:
It's so smart that you didn't just wait until agents started coming to you, you actually were proactive. And did the homework so that... it sounds like you were reaching out to people that you already knew were going to be a good fit.
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah. For sure. I think that as artists sometimes we're a little modest and don't... like I said before, in real life if I'm at a party or something like that, it's real challenging for me to really talk about what I do and be like, "Oh yeah, I do this. And I do that, and I met this person and I that person." I don't want to be that guy, but when it comes to the business side and people that are within the industry, I have no problem tooting my own horn and talking about myself and really pushing to people what I want to do, or what I'm trying to accomplish or what I have accomplished. And just really putting myself out there. I think that those are the people that are usually going to be most successful.
 
Andrew Dickson:
Well, and you mentioned community, being a freelancer it can be lonely. So how do you create community? Be it with other creative people or other photographers, or how do you manage that?
 
Marcus Smith:
I try to... the best that I can, meet up with people, and I actually just had a meeting with another photographer a few days ago, where we were just talking about how we can do better as local artists that getting together with each other, and getting together with other photographers, other creatives, trying to pull something together on a monthly basis or bi-monthly basis, where we can all just talk shop with each other, ask questions or see what each other's going through at the time, just so we can support each other. I already do that on an individual level with other photographers that I respect. I'm really big on the idea of listening to and getting advice from the people that I consider to be above me.
 
Marcus Smith:
So the ones that I've met, I probably annoyed them at one point by always emailing them or always texting them and just not really going away. They're always just a wealth of knowledge for what might be coming for me. So I try to do that. And conversely if there's anybody that's reaching up to me. I try to respond to those emails or respond to those Dms or... in the rare occasion, even meet up with them and have in person conversation. So I try to do that as well.
 
Andrew Dickson:
Awesome. Hey Marcus, it has been such a pleasure talking to you and learning about your story and your wisdom. So thank you so much for sharing with us.
 
Marcus Smith:
Yeah. Thanks for having me. 
 
Aaron James:
All right. It's time for the Q&A time with Mt. Freelance.
 
Darren:
Hi, Mt. Freelance. As a freelancer, I have a hard time getting the work that I've done at these pharma agencies. What can I tell them so that I can get my work and put it in my book and continue to get work. It's really, really important. So any advice would be greatly appreciated. This is Darren, thanks.
 
Andrew Dickson:
Darren. Long time. Mt. Freelance member. Thanks for the question. So right off the bat, you can password protect the work, which... how's that work, Aaron.
 
Aaron James:
Well, you... a lot of websites portfolios whatever, allow you to put a password on a section of work. Below that you could just say, "Hey, email me. If you want to check out this work, it's pharmaceutical." You could describe it a little bit. And then the good thing is you also have their email. So even if it doesn't work out for this time, and someone's interested in looking at that type of work you have, a way to contact and follow up with them in the future for future work.
 
Andrew Dickson:
And when you do, as creatives we help our clients. And often we're making a presentation or some PDF, but we don't make them for ourselves a lot. So I know everyone's got their portfolio website, but actually we often recommend to creators, "Hey, you can be proactive." So you could actually put a PDF together of all that work. And only share it with prospective clients, actually go after prospective clients and just letting them know, "Hey, this is proprietary, can't share it, but I want you to see what I can do."
 
Aaron James:
Right. And this is also not just something that we see in pharmaceutical work. It's also in tech, product releases, shoes that are going to come out later. So Darren, hope that helps. Get a couple passwords on that work and hide it on your site for the right people.
 
Andrew Dickson:
The Mt. Freelance Podcast is handcrafted by the producers, mixers and sound designers of DigitalOne, Portland, Oregon. Executive producer, Eric Stolberg. Post producer, Kelsey Woods. Assistant engineer, Tristin Schmuck, who also created the theme song and incidental music. To learn more about Aaron, Andrew and Mt. Freelance, visit mtfreelance.com. Thanks for listening, and may your day rate be high and your vacation long.
 
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