Few African American twentysomethings’ names would ring a bell in the world of commercial photography. So even though I have read his bio and talked to him on the phone, I’m still somewhat surprised when I meet Marcus Smith in Chicago. Despite our ten-year age gap, we quickly bond over a shared passion for basketball, the Chicago Bulls in particular. He played basketball until his junior year of high school and carries himself with a physical self-assuredness that makes me think he could probably run a few full-court games right now.
Smith’s sports photography is intimate and physical, images so candid they almost seem like casual snapshots. But the composition and technique is unmistakable. A young quarterback falls into his drop back, ball high and tight to his chest as late afternoon shadows reach across the gridiron. In a dark weight room, a woman grins broadly as she slaps her hands together in a cloud of athletic chalk. NBA star Carmelo Anthony sits, head cocked, eyes closed in the soft light, as a barber steadies his clippers for a last adjustment.
Although he has worked with clients as diverse as Bank of America, Degree deodorant and Pepsi, Smith is perhaps best known for his work with Nike. He has several Jordan Brand commissions under his belt—including images for Carmelo Anthony’s M9 sneaker and the 2012 Summer Olympics Rise Above and Men’s Basketball campaigns—in addition to projects for Nike Football. His unique approach to sports photography generated a groundswell of attention on social media, and to his credit, once Smith got the ball, he didn’t stop running.
Bill Sager, design director at San Diego–based ad agency VITRO, worked closely with Smith on a shoot for ASICS footwear. “We found Marcus through his online portfolio, which is an impressive amount of work within a short period,” Sager explains. “We were striving to tell a more authentic story,” he recalls, “and here was Marcus capturing moments that are not your traditional hero shots—like a high school football practice—and making it cool and interesting.”
Smith grew up on Chicago’s South Side, specifically the South Shore, a lower-middle-class, predominantly African American neighborhood on the city’s lakefront. He was raised in a single-parent home by his mother, Ida Brown, who runs a community-based nonprofit in the city. Although he came to photography later than most in his profession, Smith always had an affinity for art. A childhood love of drawing became his first creative passion, and Smith was determined to master it.
“My mom used to babysit this older kid when I was little, and he was really good at drawing,” Smith remembers. “He could draw comic book characters, he could draw photo-realistically, just on another level. So I would try to draw the same way and get upset to the point of crying when I couldn’t.” Instead of giving up, Smith pushed himself to get better. That competitive drive would prove a constant in Smith’s life. Whether drawing, playing basketball or making music, he would throw himself obsessively into his pursuits. “I like to be good—not just kinda good—and if I am around someone who is better than I am at something, I use that as motivation.”
Still, it wasn’t until Smith was a student at the University of Illinois that he unexpectedly found his true muse. A friend passed him a pirated version of Photoshop, but the more he tinkered with the program, the more unsatisfied his inner perfectionist grew. Not content with manipulating other people’s images, Smith dug up a cheap digital camera and started making his own. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he would need a better camera if he wanted to shoot anything worthwhile. With his 21st birthday approaching, he let his mother know that he had his heart set on a Nikon D40, but she told him she couldn’t afford it. Chastened, Smith let it go, but when his birthday arrived, so did the Nikon.
“I started taking pictures of my friends, shoes, everything,” Smith says. “It was pretty much a rabbit hole from there.” Eventually, people outside of his immediate circle began to contact him after seeing his work on Facebook, mostly independent local musicians who wanted promotional photographs taken. Smith was pleasantly surprised to make a little money, but still considered photography a hobby, not a “real” career.
And with graduation looming, it was time to think more seriously about what he was going to do with his degree in business economics. Smith secured an interview with Procter & Gamble, who flew him to corporate headquarters in Cincinnati. His first host on the trip was a longtime employee who told him she had intended to move on and become a wedding planner. However, she had found it such a rewarding place to work that she never left. Coincidentally, his host the next day was a younger employee who confessed that although she liked her job, she really just wanted to save money to become an event planner. “I was thinking, ‘I probably just met the future me yesterday,’” Smith says with a laugh, “and ‘Will I still be working here when I’m 40?’ By the time I had the interview I was like, damn this—I don’t want to work in a cubicle for 25 years.”
Smith knew what he didn’t want to do, but he was no closer to figuring out how photography could provide him with the type of income he desired. Lacking any sort of mentors in the field, he was feeling lost, and then his mother again came to his aid. When Smith confided in her that he was thinking about going to school for photography, her response was unequivocal: go for it. “I told him to follow his heart,” Brown recalls when I reach her by phone, “because you can’t live life in fear. You cannot be afraid to try, you cannot be afraid to fail and, most importantly, you cannot be afraid to succeed.”
Ever the pragmatist, Smith chose to attend the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Western Massachusetts because it focused exclusively on photography and offered a ten-month certificate program. Not long after his enrollment, he had the opportunity to meet one of the photographers he admired most, Gary Land, who was on campus as a guest speaker. He and Smith had an easy rapport and stayed in touch afterward, with Smith welcoming the opportunity to show Land his work. Eventually, Land invited Smith along on a shoot for Gillette/NASCAR. Determined to do more than simply observe, Smith made himself useful on set; whether troubleshooting a recalcitrant computer or carrying equipment for people, he kept his eyes open and hands busy. By the time the gig was over and he was heading back to school, Land told him that if he wanted a job when he graduated, there would be one waiting for him in Boston.
Whereas he attributes his work ethic to his mom, Smith credits his time as Gary Land’s assistant with giving him the tools to succeed in commercial photography. “Working with Gary was my introduction into the business of advertising photography,” Smith explains. “It wasn’t really the technical [aspects] I learned, it was how to interact with people, what clients are expecting, and how to go above and beyond to make clients happy.” For two and a half years, Smith worked as Land’s assistant, but he knew it was time to move on when he found himself thinking more about how to be a better photographer than about how to be a better assistant.
When deciding to strike out on his own, Smith applied another lesson he learned from Land: always have personal projects, because they often set the stage for paid work. After moving back to Chicago, Smith noted the buzz surrounding his neighborhood high school basketball team and its shining star, future NBA lottery pick Jabari Parker. Determined as ever, Smith worked every connection he had to put himself in front of the Simeon Career Academy’s varsity coach and ask for permission to shoot the team. The coach agreed to ask the team and let them decide. A few days later, Smith heard back—and the same team that had said “no” to ESPN said “yes” to Marcus Smith. The opportunity was another turning point in Smith’s career. He turned the photographs into a personal Tumblr project before underwriting a short run of books, which he then sent out to contacts at advertising agencies—relationships established during his apprenticeship with Land. A few months later, he got a phone call from someone at Nike’s Jordan Brand with the offer of a summer-long gig running the company’s Instagram account. Smith jumped at the chance and hasn’t looked down since.
The Jordan Brand project led to more work with Nike and, after saving some money, Smith redesigned his logo, put together a book of his high school basketball images and purchased a slot at NYCFotoWorks for his first portfolio review. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and Smith started hunting for an agent, eventually signing with Candace Gelman & Associates in September 2013. Since then, the pace has been, by his own admission, “insane, in a good way.”
When I ask Gelman what she thinks has led to his meteoric rise, she says, “Marcus is a very hard worker, and he is extremely talented beyond his years. His work gets noticed because it stands out—he has a style that is unique, real and believable.” She adds, “He is great with people and really great at capturing shots when no one even knows he is shooting.”
Wandering through Chicago’s Millennium Park on a gorgeous Saturday, Smith indulges my inner fan and points out Chicago Bears wideout Brandon Marshall’s penthouse on the skyline. He had been there recently to shoot a feature for ESPN The Magazine that I will see a week later at random, by which time he already will have returned from another assignment, in California. Smith is a working photographer in every sense of the phrase.
A higher profile has meant more big-budget projects that resemble small movie sets, with multiple trailers, wardrobe, assistants, stylists and casting. Smith estimates that, at his level, 75 percent of the job is logistics: finding the best location, determining how many shots are needed and how many days the client can afford, and staying organized are all key. One of the things Smith feels sets him apart is his ability to create unique, personal work no matter what is happening behind the scenes.
It’s hard to spend time with Marcus Smith and not come away impressed by his rare combination of artistic maturity and business acumen. He attributes those qualities to an unsurprising source: “I am truly my mother’s son; that’s where I get my work ethic from, that’s who influenced me to think, not just artistically, but also to be business-minded,” he says. “She would always say, ‘There is a difference between being smart and being intelligent. Being intelligent means knowing how to take what you know and put it into action.’” ca