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Picture This: Marcus Smith on photographing Lebron James for Nike


Colour, movement and intention are Marcus Smith’s hallmarks, and he unfolds them with the grace of the basketball player he’s been his whole life. He can walk into a real-life scenario and capture iconic images on the fly or walk across a set and direct sparkling, spontaneous moments that look like real life. He is thoughtful but quick, confident but open. Whether he’s photographing a clothing campaign, a professional athlete, or portraits of everyday changemakers, Marcus focuses on the human story. Even in its most experimental form, his work has heart and intention, and the proof can be seen in his portfolio, along with Meta, Chase, Google, Gatorade, Nike, Apple, Adidas, Bose, Coca-Cola and ESPN The Magazine among brands drawn to the honesty and beauty of its storytelling. Marcus has been recognized by the International Photo Awards (he won 1st place in the Sports/Court Sports category for his portrayal of Kobe Bryant), Communication Arts and American Photography 32, and he was named to the PDN’s 30 in 2014.

LBB> What intrigued you in the initial brief?

Marcus > In 2017, I was hired by Nike to photograph Lebron James right after he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers and led them to their first-ever NBA title. I’m a big basketball fan and a big Lebron fan, so receiving this mission was particularly interesting for me. Definitely a dream project to work on.

The initial brief was to create an iconic image that represented the first time Lebron would return to the court after winning a title for his hometown. But it wasn’t just any title. The road was particularly moving. First, Lebron left the Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat in a televised breakup that saw people burning his jersey in the street because they were so angry. When he came back, the Cavs reached the Finals but were down 3-1 and trying to do something that had never been done in NBA history: stage a comeback against one of the best teams, the Golden State Warriors. Lebron’s return to the field for this team was another high point in what had been a roller coaster ride for the fans.

LBB> What were your first steps in breaking down the brief and formulating your ideas?

Mark> The year before, I had created a similar image of Kobe Bryant, except he was leaving the field instead of entering it. The challenge I had to face was, how do we make this one feel like its own thing and not like it’s just a copy of Kobe’s image?

LBB> What were the interesting or stimulating conversations you had with the artistic director or the client?

Mark> On big shoots like this, there are always a lot of moving parts. The biggest is always time. Could I get an incredibly moving portrayal of Lebron right now in a short time? Luckily for me, this was my third time working with Lebron; a few months earlier, I had spent two weeks documenting it in China. There was a familiarity and a confidence that I could play on.

The production as a whole also faced particularly significant challenges. The whole concept of filming depended on recreating a real moment that involved the real stadium, but the circus was in town when we were supposed to shoot, and they had booked the Cleveland Cavaliers stadium. It was impossible for us to shoot where the team was playing. We ended up renting a community college and having the set design literally recreate a corner of the Cleveland Cavs stadium. Simple, right!? In the Cavs stadium tunnel, there is a custom mat that the owner had brought in from Italy. Of course, we couldn’t replicate that, so the set designers photographed it and had a high quality vinyl print created to cover the floor. Then, for the actual shoot, we hired about 200 extras to represent the crowd and designed all the signs they carried. The funny part was that most of them were real fans and enjoyed being part of this process.

LBB> How do you generally like to work with your actors/subjects to get the most out of them?

Mark> I generally like to spend time with my subjects to build some trust, so they can let their guard down a bit and feel natural in front of the camera. On commercial shoots, you usually don’t have time to do this and you have to find a way to speed up the process. I usually talk with my subjects between shots. I love researching the people I photograph (if they’re famous) and finding other interesting things to talk about besides what they do for a living. So if they play basketball, I refuse to bring up basketball unless they do! LOL.

LBB> And on this occasion, what did you really want to capture in your subject/casting? What was the chemistry on set and how did you work with them?

Mark> I really wanted to capture the emotion of what it was like to have such a heartbreaking experience. The question I kept asking myself is: what does this look like in a picture? Unlike film, where music and other elements help make that connection, a photograph had to say it all in a single frame.

LBB> What were the interesting technical challenges that this project raised and how did you overcome them?

Mark> The biggest technical challenge was lighting an incredibly large space. We used a trick light called balloons. It’s basically a floaty white silk with a light to create a stadium lighting atmosphere, but is a bit more flattering. We also had 25-30 spotlights running off a DMX board that moved around and created dynamic hard lights that illuminated Lebron and the rest of the crowd.

LBB> How was the day of shooting? Spontaneous opportunities or surprises?

Mark> We were very prepared. We had a two-day pre-light to set up the stage and work with a replacement to represent Lebron, so that when he comes we can be as efficient as possible. Once he entered, my team and I were like a well-oiled machine, moving fluidly through everything we had rehearsed. Lebron was super happy and had some good banter with the fans who came over to support the shoot.

LBB> What keeps you in this project? What makes it different from anything you’ve worked on?

Mark> As a kid from Southside Chicago, I grew up playing basketball. It was one of the most important things in my life. When I started photography in college, you could say it replaced my basketball. Before doing this myself, I had no idea being a photographer was a thing, so to combine my first love and my second love into something that led to this project is incredibly humbling, especially since it was for a brand I’ve seen create iconic images for iconic athletes over the years and I was now a part of it.