The Drive Interview: Photographer, Cinematographer and Racer Jeff Zwart

Jeff Zwart talks about his love for Porsche, how current Pikes Peak racers have it easy, his father’s lost 901 and how discipline hones your eye.

J.F. Musial

Chances are you know Jeff Zwart, even if you think you don't. The name might not ring a bell, and you've definitely never met him, but trust me, you know him. Over a multi-decade career as a professional photographer, cinematographer and commercial director, his images have graced magazine covers and dealership walls alike, while his TV spots have become icons. He's run some truly death-defying shoots with the likes of Ken Block. In other words, Zwart is a man who knows the worth of a perfect image.

As easygoing as any Long Beach-bred Californian, Zwart was born into a gearhead’s world. His father took the young man to races around Southern California and taught him how to drive in his personal Porsche 901, the precursor to what would later become the 911. After high school, Zwart attended the preeminent Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, a school where some of the most legendary automotive and concept designers have attended, including Star War’s Ralph McQuarrie, futurist Syd Mead, Koenigsegg and Bugatti designer Sasha Selipanov, BMW’s Chris Bangle, Chip Foose, Henrik Fisker, and the ever-present designer Freeman Thomas, who grew up next door to the budding photographer.

Zwart was picked up by Road & Track as a staff photographer right out of school and instantly pushed into the deep end of the pool as the magazine’s former Art Director Bill Motta, who passed away this year, had him shoot the cover as his first-ever assignment. Gaining experience along the way, Zwart made a name for himself shooting action shots like no other and getting hired by the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Cadillac, the game company behind Forza Motorsports, and Porsche.

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Later, Zwart moved to videography and commercials for those same companies, but added others like Williams Formula 1, Hoonigan, and even working as a consultation expert on movies like Ron Howard’s Rush and as the second unit director for last year’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. Behind that success is another special skill: Unlike most other pro photographers, Zwart drives competitively himself.

Zwart details his racing start below, but the quick version is a rental car, some rally roads, the Millen brothers, and a winning drive behind the wheel of a Formula Ford. Since then, Zwart has raced in rally competitions around the world and the famed Pikes Peak hillclimb—where he's scored no fewer than 8 class wins over the years—including one time behind the wheel of a 997-generation Porsche 911 GT2 RS that he drove from California to Colorado, raced the car, and then drove it back to SoCal.

The Drive caught up with Zwart earlier this year to reminisce about how there was once a Media Challenge race series, how current Pikes Peak racers have it easy, his father’s lost Porsche 901, and how discipline in taking your shots helps hone your eye.

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The Drive: So you’ve shot commercials, movies, documentaries, and probably a couple of million stills every year in your career, what helped develop your eye?

Jeff Zwart: Oh, that's a good question, I think I maybe had an eye to begin with when you think about development. I can certainly trace my car roots. I can trace my desire for photography. But the eye itself, I think I had a little bit naturally to begin with, but it’s something I still hone. Even today, I spend time on Instagram using it as therapy or my everyday visual workout. I love the idea that you can just create things so easily on the iPhone and I kind of make it a task every day to find something in my world that's valuable enough to post the following day.

It’s a good daily goal and I think it's a bit like an athlete where you keep training and keep doing things. And for me, it's a little bit of that style of approach to it. And while it's not physical in nature, I think `it kind of keeps me aware of what's around me and what I would like to translate for other people to see. If you ask what I do in my world, you know, I visually interpret speed. [Laughs] That's kind of what I'm doing all the time.

The Drive: Interesting way to put it.

Jeff Zwart: Yeah, yeah. So, I visually interpret speed in different ways and, fortunately, I've been able to turn that into filmmaking and things like that, but those influences for visually interpreting speed truly comes from my racing. I've been on the inside of racing, from road racing to rallying to off-road to almost every other kind of it. I've had at least the honor of kind of dabbling in too.

It certainly influences my work every day and when I look at something like a Red Bull project or things like that and working with world-class Formula One drivers and I can relate to what they do on some level because I have put my world on the edge in the form of racing too. I constantly love to break it down visually so that people get the idea of what it's like to be in that position.

So, the description I think in my own head of how I approach the visuals is that I want to be the participant. I don't want to be the observer.

The Drive: Conveying the experience.

Jeff Zwart: Yeah, even just think about those two words, observer or participant, it's far more interesting a participant. And because I'm attached to that lens, that's attached to that camera that actually records these moments that I get to share with people, that means I'm there. I'm not just standing looking at it, I'm actually in the middle of it. Stylistically, that works for me, because I like to be active; I like to be on the move. I like to be moving forward and being challenged by the terrain and the situations I'm in. That’s why I was attracted to rally. But all of this influences my visuals.

The Drive: Let’s talk about the camera itself. You see people at events today with a couple of grand strapped to their chest. The way that you're talking about it right now, the camera doesn't seem to matter.

Jeff Zwart: Oh, it matters where it's pointed. That's the reality of it. I came from a discipline in photography where we put these cartridges into cameras that had 36 pictures on it. And you went into an event knowing that you had 10 rolls of film and you had 360 pictures to take at that event and you had to constantly pace yourself and make sure that you had enough film left for the finish. And then you still had to have a little film left because something cool might happen on the podium. All this kind of stuff of all planning. So each picture was somewhat calculated.

In today's world, you know, we shoot more pictures before we leave the hotel than I would have at an event. [Laughs] It’s a sheer erosion of pixels. So…

The Drive: So if you were talking to someone who wants to get into photography, would you say maybe limit yourself at first?

Jeff Zwart: I would like to say that, but unfortunately, you're competing with people that just have no limit. I think you need to develop the craft and the eye and what is in the positive space of the picture as much as what's in the negative space. In other words, the subject matter to what the negative space is and things aren't centered and there's design and there's geographical things that lead you to the subject. I don't let go of those things just because I'm shooting with an iPhone.

The Drive: Right.

Jeff Zwart: It’s just so weird to me now the volume of imagery that is taken that odds wise, you’ll likely get a good shot. In my Road & Track days of 10 rolls of film, I knew I had to do a cover and had to do interior and had to do an action shot. Along with a static shot and details and things like that. So, out of those 360 pictures, 36 pictures were needed, 10% needed to be used. Now, percentages are like literally below one percent. [Laughs] That really does change it.

The Drive: Do you then take that to your digital shooting right now or are you still shooting six gigs?

Jeff Zwart: No, I shoot a lot but I think that I still shoot with a still philosophy. I can't always, but everything you shoot, whether its film, static, or a commercial, should stand alone as a great design shot. I think sometimes you lose in the process, it’s business.

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The Drive: You also shot one of the most famous BMWs commercials ever, the Williams BMW Formula 1 commercial. How did you get BMW to agree to do that?

Jeff Zwart: Well, it was actually for Hewlett-Packard. What was fun about it was I got called in and it was just an interesting thing because Formula One's the top of the game and as an American you're kind of on the outside of it. So when Hewlett-Packard came along and said we want to do this Formula One commercial, I was like, oh, this is too good to be true.

I went to Williams and I sat in this big meeting, very intimidating. And they pretty much just said, we're going to work with you but Formula One's a different deal, whatever you've done, it's nothing like all this. And I nodded my head but I just thought, I've lived for this, I've been around Formula One. I really want to be a part of it. It went so well.

We started at Silverstone and we did the first ones which were about technology. Then we went to Estoril and we shot the scene without the drivers in the cars. There was Juan Pablo and Ralf Schumacher. But the funny thing is, the team just loved working with me. So then Budweiser came along and was an associate sponsor on the car and all of a sudden, I get called from the team and said, “the agency wants to use this production company. We want to work with you. Can you call?” All of a sudden, we did everything with Williams [laughs] for a time.

The Drive: This might be a little bit of movie magic but how did you paint out the drivers to make it look like they were full-size F1 cars?

Jeff Zwart: Yeah, it was a little different time then than it is now.

The Drive: Wasn't it '95 or something?

Jeff Zwart: It would have been about right around then. What we did is we had fixed cameras on the cars for the most part. And so we would do the fixed cameras with the drivers driving the cars around but they wore all-black suits, the stuff then would kind of go away. And then we went into the pits, put the cars on turnstiles and put the cameras in exactly the same spot without any drivers and then spun the cars around and did all the different lighting effects that we basically achieved along the way.

The problem was it rained slightly [laughs], so all of a sudden you had all the mist and rain and drivers and things like that. It all worked out well in the end. But it was a little bit of sleight of hand. The funny part is Juan Pablo and Ralf actually had to run the radio control cars. At first, they were sitting in the stands with the radio control units and they were just pretending to do it and I realized, you know, it just didn't look like they were doing anything and I said, we really need to get the [RC] cars [laughs] so you can run them.

We had these local Portuguese radio-controlled cars, which were all just so enamored that they were with world-class Formula One drivers. So, they brought them out and put them on the track. Well, of course, Ralf immediately drove one into the wall. [Laughs] The car exploded. But the good news was that they really looked like they were racing and…

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The Drive: Well, yeah, you have that little bit of reality.

Jeff Zwart: That was pretty fun. [Laughs]

The Drive: What then gave you the bug to start racing yourself instead of just being behind the lens?

Jeff Zwart: Well, I reached a point in my still career where my last year of stills I had billed 250 days of shooting and I was literally all over the world doing all the major campaigns and everything. And American Photographer at the same time did a cover story on me calling me the high-performance photographer in the United States. It was a great honor to be a part of that magazine, but I was at that point where if I shoot one more car coming over a ridge [laughs], sliding or doing whatever, it just felt like I was at a point where I needed to transition because in the still world, all of this action was taking place but I was only recording 125th of a second of it.

It came through two moments. One is very early on, I got sent to driving schools to do stories for Sports Car Magazine and I went to Bondurant School. I went to Jim Russell's School, and I went to British School of Motor Racing. So, I went to the driving schools and it was an embedded situation where the rider and photographer would go through the program. Every driving school I went to, I would come out as the fastest person. The instructors would always say, “you know, you should really look into doing more of this” and I'm like, “I don't know.”

The Drive: Sure.

Jeff Zwart: And you know, you figure if every instructor says that, well. [Laughs] It just really worked well for me and then there was an interesting thing where they had a Media Challenge with the Jim Russell School cars. I can't remember who actually sponsored it, but I drove and did really well in that. I drove for Sports Car Magazine at the time and…

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The Drive: That would terrify me today.

Jeff Zwart: [Laughs] Yeah, we were all in Formula Fords. Jean Jennings [Automobile Magazine’s long-time Editor-in-Chief at the time] was in it too. Everybody had somebody in it.

The Drive: I've seen most of the current media players drive. I’d expect you're gonna write off a bunch of Formula Fords.

Jeff Zwart: [Laughs] It only went two years…

The Drive: See!

Jeff Zwart: [Laughs] The other moment was as I obviously used precision drivers all the time, the person that I used the most was [racecar driver] Rod Millen and Rod drove all the things. And as people do, we'd be out in rental cars, hauling ass around and be on a dirt road. I'd be driving and he'd be riding with me. And one day, I’m flicking it down the road and pitching it in the corners and stuff and suddenly he says, “You really should be doing more with this.” [Laughs]

The Drive: [Laughs]

Jeff Zwart: But honestly, it was his brother Steve. We were on a job and I was driving, chasing Steve… Oh no, he was chasing me, out of a set on a long gravel road. And we got to the end of the road and he goes, “You're really good. You should really do this.” Rod finally said to me, “let's build you a rally car,” because he was running in the rally championship. So, he built the Mazda and two years later, I was open class national champion.

The Drive: Nice.

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Jeff Zwart: So... [laughs], yeah and I tied for the overall championship and only lost because I had one less win than the other guy.

The Drive: That's insane.

Jeff Zwart: I absolutely loved it. But when I was done with that season, I thought this would be so much more meaningful to me if I could do it in a Porsche. And at the same time, the first all-wheel drive 911 was made available to the public. Maybe I could do something with that and so I spent two years trying to put together a program. In '92, Porsche Motorsport in Germany and Andial said, “We're ready to move forward on something with you.” And so Andial built the Carrera 4 rally car that I had, which is essentially the same as the black Carrera 4 lightweight over in Germany.

It had every trick bid in it and I went and drove it in and finished fourth in the championship. We spent the winter taking care of some problems we had. We came out of the box in '94 winning a couple of events and Porsche said, “Why don't we consider doing Pikes Peak” and I said, “game on, let's do it.” They loaned me a motor from the Supercar series which Hurley [Haywood] and Walter Rohrl were driving in, I think.

It was based on the 964 Turbo, so it had a 550 horsepower and put it in my rally car that normally had 300 horsepower. It had short gears, so 125-mile an hour top speed and I arrived at Pikes Peak with this monster. [Laughs]

The Drive: Good lord.

Jeff Zwart: I ended up winning Open Class and that set the stage for 16 years and 12 different Porsches and eight championships there.

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The Drive: Do you miss the dirt?

Jeff Zwart: Yeah, I do. I miss the dirt. I mean, my style is having a loose car under me, something that moves around really well. I like that. It's invigorating and it's so much more of a challenge for me. And then, just the dynamic of it is interesting because in the dirt, you rush the corner, you pin the nose under braking, you rotate it, and then you drive it on throttle. But the moment it rotates in the slip, it's released its energy.

And you're now driving on the throttle at slip, positioning it in the right position in the corner and you come out of the corner carrying as much speed as possible. But that initial rotation is where the energy's been released and now, on the pavement, we drive racing tires right to the edge of grip of racing tires. Not really in the slip.

And if you were to all of a sudden find yourself in the wrong place on the course, and you'd have to do something and it would let go, that energy would release so fast and with so much spontaneity to it, with no space to correct from it.

So the dynamic of it is so different. Now, fortunately for me, Pikes Peak's home. I know every corner. I know all those things you need to discover limits, but it's a funny surface that changes all the time and it's also odd. It's odd because it's a living organism with weather changes. There aren’t corner workers at every corner so somebody could be losing fluids ahead of you and you’ll be reading the road all the time.

And if you just take it purely on the time side, generally in the dirt days, I was at 12-1/2 minutes, plus or minus 15 seconds. No matter what all the different cars I drove, I was generally in that window, except for that first year in the open class car, I was well under that. Then the pavement comes along. Now, I'm under 10. I'm one of the few drivers under 10 minutes and top speed in the dirt days is 101, 105 maybe. Now, my top speed was like 138 miles an hour and everything is going at a much greater rate. It's a big, big jump.

The Drive: Massive.

Jeff Zwart: I really feel for the rookies because the commitment it takes to really go quickly there, it's an uphill event where your car's generally losing power because of the altitude and everything else, so it's very much a momentum course. The commitment it takes is really high. I love it, but miss the dirt.

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The Drive: Do you think it's harder now than it was?

Jeff Zwart: Yes. Yeah, much, much harder. There's only one factor that makes it easier. In the dirt days, we did not have guardrails, so there was a lot of turning against the sky. Your reference points were like feel, but for the most part you're turning against the sky.  Now, because almost every hairpin has guardrails, you can kind of wait until you see at least the end of the guardrail knowing that there's a corner coming. When I coach for Porsche Motorsports in the GT4 class, I always go, “You guys get to cheat!” [Laughs} I didn't get to cheat.

The Drive: [Laughs] “You guys have reference points. I didn't have reference points.”

Jeff Zwart: [Laughs] I marvel at it because there's this one place where it's just sweeping right and it's blind and it's line and then there's a hairpin buried up there and it's all against the sky and you come in and you just drift all the way out to the outside edge and then you pin it and come around that corner in the hairpin. Now, it's all revealed to you.

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The Drive: So going back to Porsche, your dad had a 911, but it was actually a 901. Did you find out about the car’s rarity after you’d gotten rid of the car?

Jeff Zwart: The awareness of 901 came along much later than my father's ownership, but that was an interesting time. I mean, the only reason why my dad had it probably was because it was a 901 [laughs], meaning, that it was as old a car as he could buy and afford, because he never had a new Porsche.

The Drive: It was the cheapest he could buy?

Jeff Zwart: Yeah, it was really an old 911 and he bought it in 1968 or '69. He really wanted a 911 and, like I said, it was the oldest one he could find. It was funny because he didn't really race, but he liked to go to racing things. And there was a Porsche owner's club event always at Riverside Raceway and different places in Southern California.

And I just remember the one time we were aware of it was he ran into somebody at Riverside who actually had chassis number 29 and somehow it came up in conversation that our car was actually older. It was Bali Blue and the car I learned to drive in. It's the car I spun in my high school parking lot. You know. (Laughs) There’s just so many things and to think of where I am today and to remember that day of settling into a car and reaching out to this wooden steering wheel and the pedals are offset and you're in Los Alamitos Horseracing Track parking lot and you put that clutch in and you let the gas pedal out and it kind of goes forward. It's a magical moment. But that was a 901.

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The Drive: Just the car you learned to drive in.

Jeff Zwart: Pretty special, huh. 

The Drive: With your history being so rooted in the internal combustion engine, what's your take on the Taycan we’re sitting in right now?

Jeff Zwart: It's an evolution. It's like turbocharging normally aspirated. We've all gone through those transitions of four-cylinder, six-cylinder, 10-cylinders in Porsche. Eight cylinders, all these renditions.

The Drive: From air to water-cooled.

Jeff Zwart: Yeah. All those kind of things. I think that while the electrification initiative across the board is somewhat dumbing down the driving experience, Porsche has truly kept the Porsche experience in the category. Just to step back even a little bit, we asked the same question when this Cayenne came out and I thought, “why would they want to do that.”

I clearly remember the moment as I was in Germany working on the advertising program at that time. Porsche told me “Our customer has need for more stuff. They're getting older. They have kids. We need to still keep giving them a Porsche experience.” And you hear that and you go, yeah, yeah, that will be the day. But then the Cayenne came out. It was rear bias in its drivetrain. You turn it in a corner, the rear end would step out. It was up on its toes. It felt lively. It kind of redefined that segment.

And you go, oh, I get it. I get it. I am seeing that same sort of transition go on in the electrification. And I'm liking what's happening. I'm liking that feel of having this experience be a Porsche experience, even though it's translated in an entirely different form.

The Drive: It's not an EV Porsche; it's a Porsche EV.

JZ: Right.

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The Drive: Last question, after everything you've accomplished in your life, after all the shots that you've done, the commercials you've filmed, the races you’ve won, what else do you want to do?

Jeff Zwart: Um... (laughs) that's a good question. I tell you what I want to do is not stop doing what I'm doing. [Laughs] I've been so fortunate to live in a moving forward career. Meaning, physically moving forward. Traveling, shooting things, taking the challenge to interpret speed or visually interpret speed for people, and that whole combination of things has created a lifestyle that goes beyond the physical activity of doing it. It brings you together to events like this and brings me into the motorsport world and, and that combination of motorsport and my film work, is such a wonderful combination for me to have lived, and I really do appreciate it because literally, the car is the most unintimidating thing in my life and a camera is only an extension of myself.

And that combination of those two things that work so fluidly with me, has enabled me to race Baja 1000, drive Trans-Siberia from Moscow to Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, to just take me on all these world great adventures which is basically high-speed location scouting. [Laughs]

The Drive: Sounds perfect.

Jeff Zwart: Yeah, that is such a fun zone to live in.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.