Fine Art Photography Daily

The Mary Virginia Swanson Mixtape & 2013 FOCUS Award for Lifetime Achievement in Photography


The Amazing Mary Virginia Swanson
photograph by Jessica Tampas

I would not have the career I have today without the opportunities afforded me to join the conversation. I ask all of my colleagues to remember to provide context to the young talent who work with you, and connect the dots for them as you conduct your business day, for their immediate and our future benefit.

It is an incredible honor to present today’s Mixtape, not only because it is doing double duty to celebrate a significant life marker, The Griffin Museum’s 2013 FOCUS Award for Lifetime Achievement in Photography (given to an individual whose ongoing commitment to photography has created far reaching impact), but also just to celebrate one of the most important and beloved figures in the photography world, the amazing Mary Virginia Swanson.  She will be receiving her award tomorrow night in Boston and we send our collective congratulations for a lifetime dedicated to our community.

Most of us know her as Swanee (or MVS).  She is a familiar figure at events all-things-photography, bringing her deep well of photographic knowledge and insights from her hands-on experience as photographer, author, curator, stock agency owner, educator, mentor, champion of photographers, consultant, writer, lecturer, wife, and friend.  She has the uncanny ability to remember every name of every person she has ever met and greets you as a long lost friend, with warmth and interest. She is wise council to so many, and has helped photographers navigate the tricky waters of contracts, pricing, marketing, and much, much more.  Needless to say, Swanee is a cherished and respected icon amongst the movers and shakers in photography and her Lifetime Achievement Award is so well deserved.

LS_Chris Boot Aperture 60th_©TonyWhite

Chris Boot and MVS at Aperture’s 60th
photograph by Tony White

After receiving her MFA in Photography (Arizona State University, 1979) she directed educational programs for The Friends of Photography including the Ansel Adams workshop, headed special projects at Magnum Photos, and in 1991 founded SWANSTOCK, an innovative photo agency that managed licensing rights for fine art photographers.  During her career she has coordinated educational, exhibition and publication programs for a wide range of institutions and organizations. Her seminars, workshops and lectures on trends and opportunities in photography have aided countless photographers in moving their careers to the next level.

Swanee is the author of The Business of Photography: Principles and Practices, and coauthored with Darius Himes Publish Your Photography Book.  Her forthcoming title Finding Your Audience: An Introduction to Marketing Your Photographs will be released in 2014.  She has contributed articles in numerous publications, including Photo District News, British Journal of Photography and the compilation, The Education of a Photographer.  Today she is a sought-after speaker, advisor, juror and portfolio reviewer. She consults with businesses and agencies to broaden their knowledge of contemporary photography and frequently partners with non-profit organizations to enrich dialogue in their communities. MVS currently serves on the Board of Advisors of the Houston Center for Photography, New Orleans Photo Alliance, the Director’s Advisory Council of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, and advises Blue Earth Alliance photographers on partnership strategies. She continues her long-term involvement with the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) and the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

It gives me GREAT pleasure to present The Mary Virginia Swanson Mixtape:

LS_youngMVSportrait age 3_©ClaytonSwanson

MVS at age 3
photograph by Clayton Swanson

Congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award. I can only imagine that it makes you step back and consider the amazing journey you have been onTell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography.

Minneapolis was a fantastic place to grow up, the best of urban/rural. I grew up in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, ½ hour by bus or car from the city. Excelsior had a classic Amusement park on Lake Minnetonka, complete with a dancehall and a wooden rollercoaster. The British Invasion loomed large, and my dad gave me 4 tickets to a Beatles concert for my 12th birthday, when no one’s parents would let them go… I remember being so upset that the older girls were screaming so loud you could barely hear the band. As soon as we were old enough to drive into the city, that’s where we wanted to be. The Walker Art Center, the Guthrie Theater, the Labor Temple, the Depot (later “First Avenue.”) Art and music filled my teenage years. The list of performers we saw was unbelievable –Miles Davis, Ike & Tina Turner, Jeff Beck, Cream, Laura Nyro, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, a young Bonnie Raitt … At the Walker, Martin and Mickey Friedman and Sue Weill and all they brought to our community in the form of art, film, music and performance art was huge. I had a creative group of friends, many artists and musicians among them. Our pals formed a band called The Wallets (R.I.P. Steven Kramer of The Wallets.)

I loved going to museums, and one exhibition in particular truly influenced me during high school; a monumental exhibition of Richard Avedon’s portraiture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts stopped me in my tracks. You would walk up the steps through the pillared entry into the encyclopedic museum, where we first saw suits of armor as kids, to a photography show in a completely transformed space with larger than life prints. During graduate school I returned summers and winter breaks to work for the photography curator Carroll “Ted” Hartwell (1933-2007) and we’d look at his contact sheets of images made when Avedon, Diane Arbus and designer Marvin Israel came to install the show. What a scene!

Ted’s office was where the artists gathered, new work and photobooks were shared and conversation never stopped. I learned so much in this first professional position, and met so many of my future colleagues, including Ansel Adams whom I later worked with in Carmel, California at The Friends of Photography.

LS_SharonSwanAnn Fessler Mike Mandel at Ansel Wksp_©SueRosoff

Sharon Swan, Ann Fessler, Mike Mandel, and MVS at Ansel Adams Workshop
photograph by Sue Rosoff

Many of my friends headed to NYC in the early 70’s to forge their careers in contemporary culture. My father was killed in a car accident just before I finished high school which sent me drifting a bit but within a year I followed friends to Arizona State University for ceramics then photography degrees, combining my interests in art history, museum and gallery management and making art – all of which pointed to photography. I worked in London between degrees to confirm my interests and build a portfolio to apply to graduate school back at ASU as I had my heart set on heading the student-run Northlight Gallery which, along with my internships at the Royal Photographic Society and the Half Moon Photography Workshops set the tone for community involvement in my career.


MVS in 1985
photograph by Janet Delaney

What is your title and job description and tell us about a typical day?
Since 1999 I have worked for myself. I am an author/educator/advisor, working on projects of varying length that might involve industry research, image and text editing and overall marketing/branding for consulting clients, as well as program development for many arts organizations that I am involved with. I jury competitions and am often asked to be a Nominator of artists and photobook makers. But each and every day I am on the hunt for new ideas and information to share with others through my workshops, lectures and writings; this is truly my passion.

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MVS lecturing at SFUAD
photograph by Steven St. John

What are some of your proudest achievements?
• Winning 1st place in Photography in the ASU all-school student art show juried by John Baldessari and Peter Plagens.


MVS at her MFA Thesis Exhibition
photograph by Bill Jay


MVS’ MFA Thesis poster

• Being given the authority to curate an exhibition of 40 photographs from 1900-1950 from the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for display at ASU’s Northlight Gallery, for which the catalogue was published as an issue of Northlight Magazine (my Thesis requirement) which was installed alongside with my MFA show. The museum traveled this show to subsequent locations, which was truly an honor.


Northlight Cover

• Raising the awareness of the collectible marketplace of the work of Magnum member photographers during my tenure at their NYC office.

• Founding Swanstock in 1991, an alternative agency that managed licensing rights for artists (when appropriate) as a secondary source of revenue for artists.

• The honor of being a member of the Advisory board  for the Gordon Parks Foundation

• Continuing to develop relevant educational programs throughout my career, bringing awareness and expertise to artists through my writing, lectures, seminars and workshops.

What do you look for when attending a portfolio review?
Good work and good people. One without the other is OK, but the combination makes for stronger long-term relationships.

LS_MVS Event Name Tags2

A few of MVS’ Name Tags

Any advice for photographers coming to a review event?
Be prepared! Do your homework on your craft, your colleagues and your community. We are there to meet you and your work, and know that when given advance notice of which photographers have been assigned to us, we will do our homework too.


Reviewer Request

What’s next in the MVS world of all things photographic?
Later this week I’m being given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Griffin. I am honored to be among a list of previous recipients that include:

Eelco Wolf, in charge of Worldwide Marketing Communications for the Polaroid Corporation as well as Executive Director of Magnum Photos Worldwide. (2012)
Dr. Alison Nordstrom, Curator of Photographs at George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York (2011)
James Colton, Photography Editor, Sports Illustrated (2010)
Eliane Laffont, Editorial Director, Hachette Filipacchi Media (2009)
Deborah Willis, Chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, Curator, Author, Educator, Historian, and Photographer (2008)
Kathy Ryan, Photo Editor, The New York Times Magazine (2007)
Anne Wilkes Tucker, Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2006)

Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 8.22.00 AM

What is something unexpected that we don’t know about you? 
I am a proud graduate of the Skip Barber Racing School at Lime Rock Park in Northeastern Connecticut.

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MVS as a driver at Skip Barber Racing School
photograph by Allen Bernstein

And because this is a Mixtape, what is your favorite song, band, and do you dance?
Dance – a must! Whenever and wherever the spirit moves you.
In the 80’s I lived in a big loft with two Magnum co-workers; our famous 640 Broadway digs hosted hundreds. I was always the DJ and our dance floor was always packed.

Favorite song/band: Impossible. How about looking backwards to my roots, the British Invasion, then (and still): Beatles, Stones, Jeff Beck, Marianne Faithful, Dusty Springfield, the Clash, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Robert Wyatt, Joss Stone. MUST cite the Americans: Blues from the Delta and the northern cities (love the Chicago shuffle), the Louvin and Everly Brothers, the Cash/Dylan and Zappa families Neil Young and fab women such as Patsy Montana, Patsy Cline, Ella, Sippy Wallace, Patti Smith, Emmylou, Lucinda and Gillian Welch.

Most recent concerts: WIlco, Richard Thompson, Bruuuccceee, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle and Flo & Eddie, and Henry Horenstein is taking us straight from the Boston airport to Atwood’s Tavern on Friday night. Henry always knows where to go, in any city, to hear great music.

Walker Art Center Timeline
AVEDON exhibition at MIA, 1970
Carroll T. Hartwell
R.I.P. Steven Kramer of The Wallets (the band in context)

And now, I hand over the Mixtape to MVS…

WE THE MENTORS (a speech, not a playlist)

Today, it is nearly impossible to learn about our field in the same organic way that many of us experienced.

Office dynamics were different. Conversations from all camps were welcomed in communal style. For myself, all discussions in Ted Hartwell’s office happened in the main room, from departmental budgets to installation planning, artists dropping by with new work or photobooks to share, and more. At the Robert Freidus Gallery in SoHo, headed by Janet Borden, we all overheard the business of representing artists, managing their inventory. At The Friends of Photography, it was all hands on deck for producing the magazine “Untitled” and shipping thousands to subscribers, similarly so for logging in/out portfolios submitted to Ruttenberg Fellowship, and installing exhibitions. We learned so much from each other, each voice was heard. At Magnum, from our vantage in the Library we overhear the business of the agency: annual reports being commissioned, editorial assignments gaining momentum, photographers coming in with new work to process, edit and syndicate. And of course in loft-like offices where the print file and contact sheets were available for review, the experience was that much richer. Photo researchers working side by side, clients who came TO the archive. Watching photographers and photo editors work together – a rare treat today. I modeled the Swanstock office after this physical office model, where everyone (including interns) learned about projects from the outset, and from all–important discussions with clients to clarify their image needs through selections and presentation to clients was exciting, full of possible points of collaboration. Fast forward to the late 1990’s and we began to see the elimination of researchers working with specialists who knew the photographs intimately. Photographs were moving online, the in-person dialogue began to dwindle, and physical offices shrank as scanning increased. Soon we learned from publications that if you did not deliver imagery electronically it would not be considered for publication.

The role of the intern and in most cases entry-level staffers in today’s workplace has changed. Due to the vast majority of business being conducted via email (essentially in private) young professionals are not part of our conversations, observing the editing processing or learning the language of our field. They are not absorbing the business of our industry.

I would not have the career I have today without the opportunities afforded me to join the conversation. I ask all of my colleagues to remember to provide context to the young talent who work with you, and connect the dots for them as you conduct your business day, for their immediate and our future benefit.


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