Maja Kuczynska – Bigger than the Sky
Stunning routine by Maja Kuczyńska
Samantha Schwann is a landscape and adventure sport photographer based out of Eloy, Arizona. She arrived for the first time in the Arizona desert six years ago pursuing skydiving, and fell in love with the harsh, rugged, and desolate landscape. Samantha's artistic background is in Sculpture, with formal training in Metal, Stone and Paper. She purchased her first camera in 2010 looking to become a freefall photographer, and quickly found that photography was the medium she had been searching for. Her artistic work primarily centers on the contrasting and paradoxical environments of the ocean and the desert, but she also loves to shoot inspirational people.
Here, Samantha presents some of her favorite skydiver portraits, and describes the background behind the pictures…
Airspeed Cameraman, National Champion
Justin is an incredibly talented canopy pilot and swooper (most recently, awarded the overall Silver finish at the Florida Canopy Piloting League). His dedication to training is nothing short of impressive, and I wanted his portrait to capture the drive, focus, and sacrifice behind what he has achieved. During a recent conversation, he told me about his training program, and I was amazed at the amount of work he did behind the scenes – when not working or training, he was at the gym, analyzing swoop competitions, preparing, continuing to learn and improve, and assumingly a ton of other stuff that he never even mentioned. This guy gives 150%. I wanted to represent both past, present and future in the finalized image – the sponsorships represent his success, the empty landing area represents that is was his efforts which got him there, and I wanted to really capture a focussed, driven expression.
As an artist, I typically have a concept that comes to mind when shooting an athlete, and this image had been floating in my head for quite a while. Due to the speeds involved, I could never capture what I wanted in real time (without getting run over), so this image is a composite (two images blended together). Justin was shot in a hanging harness at Skydive Arizona, using three speedlights for lighting, and then blended into the background using Photoshop for the final image.
World VFS Champion, Arizona Arsenal
World Record Holder
When Sara asked me if I would shoot her portrait for the 2014 Women of Infinity Calendar, I was a bit nervous, as I hadn’t done much portrait work, and I really wanted to do a good job. When photographing female athletes, it is extremely important to me that the image honors the talent, not just beauty.
The image represents achieving your dreams with grace and style
The “Walk on Water” concept represents how Sara has pushed boundaries and achieved goals previously thought impossible, and helps others do the same. I wanted a look where she wasn’t aware of the camera, representing the dedication that she has towards her career and all that she has accomplished. To me, the image represents achieving your dreams with grace and style.
I thrive on bringing a creative element into a shoot, and often times it requires a lot of jury-rigging, testing… and funny failures. Working in a swoop pond brought its challenges (and a few nips from aquatic residents); mainly the platform that Sara was standing on. The main difficulty was getting the height absolutely perfect, as too high or low would show through on the image, but adjustments made it pretty unstable. Sara rocked it, in stilettos and a catsuit.
Podiumed athlete in VFS, MFS, Artistic Freefly, Dynamic
World Record Holder
Friday Friedman loves to fly, and especially in Wind Tunnels. He gets fired up over dynamic flying and new dive pools, and suddenly his eyes will light up and a normally quiet guy becomes completely animated.
The gear becomes more than a tool – it eventually becomes a symbol of the passion, the joy, and the experiences
Friday really fell in love with dynamic flying during its “underground” period. Over the course of the years, he has travelled both nationally and internationally to train and compete, and is very active coaching dynamic here in Eloy.
I think in any sport one is really into, the gear becomes more than a tool – it eventually becomes a symbol of the passion, the joy, and the experiences. Friday’s suit allows him to fly, so I really wanted to keep the image to the raw elements between athlete, vision, and gear.
World Record Holder
I really, really love shooting athlete portraits, and I’m super lucky to live in an area where they generally tend to hang out, and often times are willing to be subjects. I invited Andy for a shoot as I was working on some new techniques that I wanted to try. Andy arrived in Eloy last year-ish, and he is such a great addition! He’s a super talented flyer and coach, all-round great guy, and he does an absolutely killer Thor impression.
Skydiving pretty much allows anyone to be a superhero, no tights required
We really couldn’t resist doing a Thor skydiving shot, so we used Skydive Arizona’s Lodestar as the background, set up a few strobes, and practiced a few superhero-esque landings. Andy just totally nailed the look, we were totally cracking up. It was really just meant to be fun, but when you think about it, skydiving pretty much allows anyone to be a superhero, no tights required.
Amy Chmelecki gave me an incredible opportunity to shoot the RedBull Air Force (Amy Chmelecki, Jeffro Provenzano, Sean MacCormack, Mike Swanson) in Houston, Texas. 4 days of tunnel flying, camps, and demos at the iFly Woodlands, and the grand opening of the Memorial location. They are such an incredible team, obviously super talented, and driven. Watching them fly was magic, they’d have everyone watching within seconds.
We got a ton of great shots, but this is my favorite. It just nails how they absolutely love what they do, and kill it as a team, travelling around the world doing awesome stuff.
Nik and Brianne are world-class competitors, athletes, coaches and humans, and are the talent behind Axis Flight School at Skydive Arizona. Nik is also a pro photographer, and he has been so amazing and generous with helping me along the way. This was just a fun shoot to try some new stuff, get some new gear photos and headshots, and this one ended up being one of my favorites.
Nik and Brianne have vision, creativity, and a relentless work ethic, and I really wanted the portrait to represent that drive. I chose the SkyVan for a background as it has that military look, and I love the O2 tubes hanging in the background – you know something awesome is up when O2 is involved. Although it’s really rare to catch either of them without a smile, I preferred a more serious look as it better represents their dedication to the sport.
World Record Organizer
Amy is a national and world level champion athlete, a member of the Red Bull Air Force, and a total all-round badass. I jump at any chance I can get to photograph her, as she’s so awesome to work with.
What I wanted to convey in the image is that Amy keeps her dreams brighter than any hurdles, and crushes them
For this shoot, we did some really beautiful lifestyle shots, and I had a creative concept in mind that required compositing in Photoshop. The creative process is definitely a process, and although every single shot of Amy was a keeper as she’s super photogenic, it ended up morphing into something completely different from what I had originally envisioned.
The background of this shot is Devil’s Golf Course, a large salt pan on the floor of Death Valley, California. I did a week-long solo photo trip, and especially during the off-season (winter), it can be extremely desolate. Devil’s Golf Course consists of foot high halite salt formations, so hauling a ton of camera gear through it was slow, tough work.
One of the many things about Amy that is so inspiring is that nothing holds her back. She makes it look effortless, but no dream is without hard work and obstacles. I liked the metaphor of using the most obstacle-ridden location I’ve ever been to, and contrasted the saturation between her and the background. What I wanted to convey in the image is that Amy keeps her dreams brighter than any hurdles, and crushes them.