Cue the donkeys: on location with Nigel Swann
For two decades locations expert Nigel Swann has been bringing high-profile photographers and film makers to Ireland for fashion shoots – such as Annie Leibovitz’s recent spread in American ‘Vogue’
Wild Irish Rose shoot for American Vogue, 2013. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images. Originally photographed for Vogue
Nigel Swann and co-producer Maria Walsh in a house on Henrietta Street, Dublin. Photograph: Perry Ogden
On location in Kerry for American Vogue, 2013. Photograph: Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images. Originally photographed for Vogue
When photographer Annie Leibovitz did the celebrated 16-page fashion shoot Wild Irish Rose in Ireland for the September issue of US Vogue last year, she attributed 80 per cent of its success to Nigel Swann.
A fine-art photographer and former model agent from Portadown, Swann and his production company Swann Locations have been luring high-profile photographers and influential international publications to this country for nearly 20 years, sourcing “inspirational” locations for the fashion, film and advertising industries.
Having sent 600 images of Ireland to Leibovitz in New York, he found the locations in Kerry for her, sorted out transport, catering, props (including 20 donkeys and the black sheep on today’s cover) and accommodation for a 22-strong crew. He also drew her attention to Marie Heaney’s Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends. Thus the love story of Diarmuid and Gráinne propelled this romantic shoot.
Widely respected in the international fashion industry, but little known outside it, Swann has been a de facto ambassador abroad for this country and its landscape, promoting diverse locations indoors and outdoors, all over the island.
He has some 70,000 images on file (including locations in Provence and Budapest), 10,000 of which are on his website.
Fáilte Ireland recently highlighted Ireland’s landscape as the enduring cornerstone of its international tourism marketing campaigns and the exposure in US Vogue, with its 11 million readership, “helps to position Ireland as a highly desirable place to visit,” says Alison Metcalfe, head of Tourism Ireland North America.
“The image of Ireland abroad is still either The Quiet Man or The Commitments: it’s the west’s rugged coastline or urban Dublin,” says Swann when we meet in Dublin. “Every client sees it as an ancient land, and the Celtic twilight, but the dominant and lasting impression is the friendliness of the people.
“Every nationality that comes here, particularly Americans, are in awe of it. Italians love the space. The Japanese are spellbound by the light and the fact that you can get four seasons in one day. The light has to do with the rain – without it you don’t get that light. I have never had a job cancelled because of the weather,” he says.
His clients include French and Italian Vogue, Vanity Fair, Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom, Anthropologie in the US, H&M, Mr Porter, Pen magazine in Japan – to name a few.
After completing a degree in fine art sculpture in Dublin’s National College of Art & Design (where milliner Philip Treacy was a contemporary), he moved to London in the 1980s with his wife, the artist and printmaker Claire Carpenter, when she got a scholarship to the Chelsea College of Art. His career began at international model agency Models 1, where he worked for 11 years as an agent, getting to know “every photographer on the planet”.