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I think it's fair to call Gregory Heisler a modern master. His numerous, notable, and infamous Time magazine covers only scratch the surface of his three-plus decades of consistently powerful portrait work. His talent for lighting, as well as his versatility and prolificacy, is remarkable and his list of subjects and clients is too monumental and varied to prioritize here.
So, what's it like talking with a master? Well in the case of Mr. Heisler, it's just like talking with anyone else. I never expected the type of pleasant, easy-flowing conversation I had with this renowned portraitist. We spoke on subjects ranging from gear choice to his new book, but I think the most insightful aspect of our discussion was the way he spoke. It was with a casual, friendly, assured, and funny demeanor. Perhaps these qualities, in the context of creating a portrait, are what make his work so intriguing. I mean, what is a portrait if not a good conversation?
BH: You have shot large format, medium format...
GH: Yeah, I've shot everything—from 11 x 14 down to half-frame 35—in the film universe but in the past 5-7 years, have shot only digital. I've parked my view cameras in a closet and vowed never to sell them. I'll get back to them at some point, but am now using only digital. I found myself on the bottom of a very steep learning curve with digital and wanted to do all I could to embrace it, to understand it. I felt like I couldn't do that and still shoot film, so I had to sort of put a clothespin on my nose and go for it.
BH: And has it been all that bad?
GH: Pretty much. Well, what's tough is, it's always changing and nobody knows everything. Worse, people don't know what they don't know, so you get bad information even if the intention is good. At least I know what I don't know and I'm trying to learn it.
It used to be that once you learned how to shoot a Canon, you could shoot any Canon. Now [when] a new camera comes out it has new firmware, new features, and it's time to relearn. Then a new image-editing program comes out and if you're two [versions] behind, the tools may not look familiar. So, things are changing quickly and it's a challenge especially if running a computer is not your most favorite thing in the world. I take it as part of the territory, but it's not my most favorite thing. I don't relish updating my software; I want to be taking pictures!
Now that's the tough part. The good part is that it's amazing. You can shoot stuff with a Canon that looks like 4 x 5, for sure. The quality and flexibility is mind-boggling. And working with the new image-editing programs is like a dream, far more finessed than the darkroom (and reversible), and it allows you to become more fully the author of your own pictures. Depending on how you shoot, of course. Other photographers have a team; it's like, 'it takes a village' to make their image. They have their retoucher, lighting tech, digital tech, archivist; I mean maybe they have an aimer, too.
BH: And you have decided that you will not go that way, specifically, to learn as much as you can?
GH: Yeah, it's just my choice. I'm not saying the other way is wrong, I just want to be able to control everything as much as possible, to learn as much as possible. I mean, the choices are incredible. Before you could only do a Cibachrome, a dye-transfer, or a C-print, and they all looked kinda bad; now I can print on watercolor paper on a desktop and it looks great. That's pretty exciting.
BH: Do you find yourself spending more time on a single photo when processing and printing digitally?
GH: Way more time. One doesn't have to and, no doubt, there are people better in editing and retouching than I, but they won't make the same decisions that I'll make when I'm in the loop.
It's like, I can mark up a contact sheet and send it off to a printer but he can't make the decision that I might make in the darkroom at three in the morning. And that's what I don't want to give up in the digital realm. Really, you spend more time with your image on a computer than you do shooting it, and that's useful; you can learn a lot about your images when you stare at them like that. It can be important to spend that kind of time with your work.
BH: So the view cameras are tucked away, what are you shooting with?
What I've been working with is the 5D Mark III, which is an amazing camera. I think it's great; the image quality is outstanding. The whole low-noise thing is important, but I usually shoot at native ISO anyway. I use 100 as much as possible and tend not to go up to 1600 or 32000. My preferred lenses all the time are the tilt-shift lenses; they're like my normal lenses. The 24mm tilt-shift would probably be my favorite lens. You know, if I was stuck on an island or some such, I'd want that 24mm tilt-shift.
But I use all of them, I think they're great lenses; they're my favorites for a million reasons. For the portrait work I do, the kind of perspective control I can get is ideal—and not just with converging lines, but I can render space much more creatively with a tilt-shift lens. I also like that they are manual focus and that most focus close. They're crazy sharp and they have to be sharp over a bigger image circle. I just love those lenses.
The only other lens I might use regularly is the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM. That, for me, is a lens to carry; it's just very useful and covers 99% of the focal lengths I would ever use.
I also have a medium format camera with a tilt-shift adapter, but I feel I could shoot any possible job with the 5D. In terms of quality level, there's no question—they're fine. And in terms of lenses, I have my tilt-shifts, and then if need be there're fast lenses, long lenses, IS lenses. For clarity and unmatchable versatility, the Canon system is crazy, its just really, really good.
BH: In regard to choosing lenses...
GH: I'm big on testing lenses. I think people buy glass based on the mystique of it. They'll buy a 50mm f/1.2 and the f/1.4 is so much more affordable. Honestly, I think if they looked at them side by side they wouldn't see the difference. When I buy a lens I spend an afternoon in the store, I shoot with them before I buy. When I bought my 100mm lens, I tried the EF 100mm f/2 USM, the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM and the EF 135mm f/2L USM. I shot with all three and checked the images on a laptop.
BH: When you shoot portraiture with the 5D Mark III, is it always on a tripod?
GH: Usually, yes, and always if I'm at ISO 100. Often with the 5D, I'll use a little cable release and shoot it like a view camera. I'll have a right-angle finder, magnify the image, make sure its sharp. Sometimes I'll shoot tethered, sometimes not, but when I'm actually shooting I'll be standing next to the camera talking with my subject as opposed to having the camera squished up to my face. That's pretty much why I want the camera on a tripod so I can interact in that way.
BH: And is that fundamental to your shooting, this interaction?
GH: For me, absolutely.
BH: On your website there is a series of abstract, very saturated color shots, certainly different from everything else on the site and what you're most known for. Can you speak about those?
GH: I'm a terrible person. Those were from a short-term project I did for myself. I rode the subway every day, 30 minutes before sunset, and I rode out to Brooklyn and Queens where the train goes above ground. I did it just to play with the light.
BH: Why would that make you a terrible person? It sounds great.
GH: Because I never do that. I should experiment with the light more, but I don't carry a camera all the time. I tend to look at it, notice it, register it, and file it away to use for something else. But I tend not to shoot those pictures because I don't want to edit them, look at them, archive them, or back 'em up. I don't want to burn a CD of them. If I want to shoot photos for myself, I like to have a bit of a stronger idea behind them, not just stuff that grabs me.
BH: How often do you shoot then? Do you have several assignments a week?
GH: Well, now I'm teaching at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. The days I'm there I'm shooting, but when I'm not, I may or may not shoot at all. Actually, there are more days that I don't shoot. Assignment work is a way smaller part of my life than it used to be. I've had this transition over the past 5 years from being a photographer who teaches to being a teacher who photographs. And that's by design.
BH: Do you see a change in what you do shoot now that you are teaching?
GH: Two things have affected me in this transition period and I've yet to see how it will really show up in my work, mostly because I haven't given it all that much chance. One is teaching and the other is that I collect pictures—19th-Century photos; terrible, ugly portraits, and I think they've made their way into my work. But the truth is I'm in between and I feel like in the next 3-5 years I will see how these two activities reflect themselves in my work.
I feel like you can have a real hunger to shoot, which is different than being busy or shooting all the time and I feel I'm in a different place now. I'd rather shoot less and enjoy more. I'm building up an appetite.
BH: At your busiest, how was it? Did you shoot as much as possible or did you try to balance it, pace yourself?
GH: Well, let's say from 1978 until when I started teaching in 2009, more or less, I was never not real busy. Everyday I was shooting, editing, preparing for a shoot, or traveling to a shoot; kind of nonstop. And in down moments, it was difficult. I wanted to stay busier. You know the saying "a busy person gets more done"? That was the case for me. When I was jamming, I would do better work. When you are doing things more sporadically, each assignment is a bigger challenge because you're revving up from zero, starting over, almost. I loved being busy, but it was harder on my assistants, who work so hard and are not getting the credit, and only so much satisfaction.
GREG HEISLER'S FAVORITE LENS
The TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II is another popular choice for discerning architectural and landscape photographers. This lens also has a wide image circle of 67.2mm to permit extensive perspective adjustments. This lens tilts ±8.5º in 1-degree increments and shifts ±12mm in 1mm increments; the tilt-and-shift mechanism is able to rotate 90º. Its circular 8-bladed diaphragm creates effortlessly smooth blur in out-of-focus image areas.
One aspherical element and three ultra-low dispersion glass minimize the risk of chromatic aberration, while an SWC coating reduces ghosting and flare. High-precision glass eliminates distortion and maintains a sharp image throughout the entire focusing range of 8.3" to infinity. On full-frame cameras, the angle of view reaches 84º. Cropped APS-C cameras will experience a focal length equivalency of 38.4mm.
BH: When you're shooting a portrait, do you tend to feel that you have the shot right after you've taken it, or do you prefer to go back, edit and look at them to know which is best?
GH: I almost always know as I'm doing it. It's very rare when I'm surprised or not sure that I got it and then see it later. I think you pretty much have a good idea when you're shooting.
BH: Do you normally shoot many takes?
GH: No, I'm a spare shooter, I actually tell my assistants to slow me down, to relax and shoot more. I tend to rush, it's kind of my nature. I find myself apologizing, excusing myself for taking so long and trying to be done quickly. When I shot large format film, there would be times when I shot a bunch, but on most jobs I would shoot relatively little film. And now with digital, I could shoot thousands of frames, but it tends to be the other way for me. Since I know when I got it, I just stop. But digital has done one thing for me. With film, when I knew I had the shot I would do coverage or extras for push and pull, but with digital I'll have time to go on to a different idea, which is cool. But I tend to not overshoot at all.
BH: When you submit, do you submit the photo you've chosen or do you submit several images?
GH: I had a bit of a reputation in editorial work as "one-shot Heisler" because I would literally often come in with just one picture. I wasn't doing it to be arrogant, it was more that I just felt like "I was there, this is it, this is definitely it. I could show you as many crappy shots as you want but I'm telling you this is it for sure." They didn't always love that.
The difference with advertising is that they might be doing different layouts, different proportions, copying things together so they may want an eyebrow from frame 12 and an elbow from frame 37 and put them together. That's a different kind of job and, for those, I would have a folder with a few selects and a folder with alternates and a folder that is literally called "the rest." For editorial, they would never see "the rest."
BH: In editorial work, for example the O.J. Simpson shots you have on your site, how much does the context of the article, what you expect from the article, or even the particular situation surrounding the subject affect your shooting decisions?
GH: It's huge. I remember years ago, on my first assignment for Rolling Stone, which I obviously knew and read; I went in to meet the picture editor and asked if I could read the article before I shot the accompanying photo. She said, "What do you need that for?" and I responded, "I'd like to have a sense of context." She said, "Just do a cool picture," and I told her, "Well, there's lots of cool pictures I could do, but wouldn't it be great to do a cool picture that makes sense?"
It's strange to me, because in the editorial world, the editors are either very literal, like "Okay, this football player is going down the wrong track so we want a shot of him standing on the railroad track." But in many cases, they don't hold photographers to the same standard as they would writers. They wouldn't let a writer just arbitrarily write something in a particular style just because he or she thought it would be groovy. That would never fly, but photographers do it all the time. And conversely, some photographers will also just shoot the same thing for every magazine, and editors won't let writers do that.
BH: I'm curious about that shot of O.J. Simpson in front of the mirror. When was that? How did it come about? Was he okay with it?
GH: Well, it was after the trial. Esquire was doing a cover story on him. I had this idea that just popped into my head, and a set director I know in California, Rick Elden, built it for the shot with the offset mirror. The idea, I guess, was that in the end only he knows his own truth and he's left with that, but as it turned out, it also has this effect that looks like he is visiting himself in prison.
BH: How much of a hand do you have in choosing locations? I'm thinking of the shot of Bruce Springsteen in what looks like an old dilapidated house, or the football player in a car-boat on a river. Were those your ideas or ideas brought to you and you had to make them work?
GH: It's a good question and it varies, but I think that, ultimately, it's my job to make them work. In the case of the football player in the amphibious car, that was an idea of the Director of Photography at ESPN magazine, the creative Nik Kleinberg, who had ideas just coming out of him all the time. With the one of Springsteen, I thought we would be shooting him in his house and suggested we do it in his recording studio at home, but his person said, "You'll be at his home but not the home he lives in." I joked, "Does he have a photo home?" And they said, "Kinda." He had bought up properties around his farm and this house is where the band or guests from out of town would stay. So we shot there, and at that point it was totally up to me. We looked around and thought that what was actually a rustic portion of a nicely restored farmhouse worked well, and he was cool with whatever we wanted to do as long as it was in that house. He couldn't have been nicer.
BH: And Michael Bloomberg up the tree? Whose idea?
GH: That was my idea. The story was for Time's "100 Most Influential Thinkers" and they were writing about his Million Trees Initiative—to plant 1 million trees in New York. The initial thought was to get a shot of him planting a sapling out in Bed-Stuy, but his schedule did not allow that; we had to do it in City Hall Park. They suggested he stand next to a tree in the park and I said, "I don't think it'll look like he planted it!" So at that point, it was a matter of trying to come up with something memorable and I scouted around ahead of time and saw this one tree that was perfectly situated and in which he could perch himself comfortably. He was game.
BH: That scouting around, was it days before the shoot or in the 15 minutes prior to his arrival?
GH: It was a day or so before. I don't remember exactly how many days I went there but it was definitely not the day of the shoot. Partly because we had to have the scissor lift and a ladder ready and also I like to know "what's cooking." I've shot him before and knew that he appreciates that the shoot will be kind of "buttoned-up;" I mean, he was more alright with the idea because he knew he wouldn't be there for an hour. I think he was back on his way to his office in less than 15 minutes.
BH: I've heard you talk about the need to be resourceful. Can you speak about a time when you had prepared heavily and at the last minute had to scrap all the preparation, but you still got something great?
GH: Well, I think you end up having to hang lefts almost all the time. There was a shot of Dale Earnhardt Jr., where he is on the bank of a racetrack and it looks likes he's leaning over but in reality we had the camera leaning sideways on the bank. The shot turned out cool but it was supposed to have been a shot of him with his car. The transport got lost and the car never showed up so we were waiting while it's getting dark, and had to come up with something. That kind of stuff happens fairly regularly. It happens a little less in advertising work. In editorial you just need a compelling shot that looks cool; in advertising, you need to hand over the picture that was promised.
And in advertising you can't come up with a "better" idea. The idea has been market-tested and improved all the way up the ladder—the last thing anyone wants is a new idea. In editorial, ideally, the people are receptive to a new idea.
BH: Other than for logistical reasons, have you turned down assignments?
GH: I have, but I don't do it a lot because it's always hard to predict what will go well. One job may seem great but will stick around like a bad smell for 6 months, and another will seem like a pain and you end up getting "Picture of the Year" for it. I'm very bad at anticipating; that's why I would tend to take on all the jobs I'm offered. You never know which will be the cool one.
BH: Was there ever a figure, a divisive personality that you were just so turned off by that you said no, I don't want to be involved?
GH: There are people I will never shoot again! I mean celebrities and athletes who offered nothing but unprompted horribleness. But in general, I am open to whomever, and I have had situations where other photographers told me that so-and-so is a nightmare but they turned out to be pussycats. So, there is nobody I wouldn't shoot. Having that one moment—in person—can always be very illuminating one way or the other.
BH: In terms of how to get meaning into a photograph, I've heard you say "the answers lie within." In that context, can you speak about the shot of Muhammad Ali standing alone in a snowy field, lit by a distant floodlight and the moon?
GH: It was taken at 4:30 p.m. and that is actually a low sun. It's at his house, which turns out is Al Capone's old farm in Michigan. It was a snowy day; we went to his house and just needed a picture of him, nothing special, possibly a cover but maybe not. We had done a whole story about his entourage, the people with him during his heyday, and hadn't necessarily planned a shot of him. Well, I did a portrait of him in his house but felt we needed another kind of picture, and as you may know he has Parkinson 's disease, which kind of locks him away in his own thoughts. For a guy who was so physical and articulate, he seems to experience a peace and quiet in there, and I thought I wanted to capture that quiet aloneness, and that the snowy field and him in the distance had that sense of solitary quiet.
BH: Lastly, why banjoists?
GH: Because I play the banjo. Badly. But, since I was 8 years old. And it's a bad instrument to play badly, but they are people I really admire. Most of that series comes from one weekend I went down to Nashville for a banjoists convention and set up a little tent. I talk about this in the book, actually. I was totally ashamed of those pictures and they sat in a box undeveloped for 10 years because they look like B-grade Avedon pictures. At the time I shot them I was really excited, they were 11 x 14 film, but when I got home I was ashamed because I had a chance to do something original and cool and all I did was that. In hindsight I feel, "it's ok to get things out of your system." You sorta have to purge that stuff...
BH: How did putting your book together (Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer) affect how you will go forward with your shooting? Was it difficult to go back over so much material?
GH: It's a funny thing. Doing the book was a fantastic experience. I had never done a long project like that before, and with the book I felt like I was a bricklayer and every day I would go to work and lay another course of bricks and, at the end of two years, I had a book. Normally, after two years, I'd have done 50-100 assignments, which was very gratifying, but you would never have this one thing at the end. And that's a great feeling. It was also an opportunity to tie this ribbon around 30-35 years of work and just send it off into the world. The biggest piece of that was actually the writing, because I was able to sorta plant a flag, to declare who I was. It wasn't just pictures going out, I was able to put in my two cents. I felt also, as a photographer and a reader and lover of photo books, that there are photographers who I admire who are no longer with us and I wish that they had done that, given their two cents. Of course, there are their books but with someone else's words as a forward or an appreciation, but that's not the same thing. I would have loved to have heard from them.
BH: Can you mention some names of photographers you wish you had heard from... or simply of those photographers whose work you loved?
GH: Yeah, the people who I thought about early on were Penn, Avedon, and Arnold Newman. And Yousuf Karsh. They were the classic portrait photographers in my mind, the ones who shaped me early on for sure.
BH: Did you work with any of them?
GH: Yeah, I was Arnold Newman's assistant in 1975 and he's the reason I moved to New York. I never would have even had a career in New York if it hadn't been for Arnold. I came to New York from Chicago specifically to work for him.
You know it's actually interesting how doing the book has changed stuff for me. I'll be giving a presentation soon and was reading about a painter, Ralston Crawford, who has a quote that describes exactly how I feel now. "I have little interest, really none, in making the kinds of pictures I know how to make. In such procedures there is for me no enlightenment." I feel that way now, the kinds of pictures I want to take are the ones I don't know how to make. And I don't know what they're going to look like yet, but I don't want to keep on taking the pictures that I already took. I'm proud of them, I like them, but I don't feel like I need to do more of them. I feel like moving in a different direction.