Gregory Heisler; 50 Portraits

November 02, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

click to dim the lights


I learned about Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits: Stories and Techniques from a Photographer's Photographer, by reading David Hobby's Strobist blog.  Heisler's credentials as a portrait photographer are well established. His list of publications and subjects seems endless.  You most likely have seen his images in publications such as Sports Illustrated, GQ, New York Times Magazine, and as covers of Time, more than 70 of them. His body of work includes portraits of Muhammed Ali, O.J. Simpson, Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis, Shaquille O"Neil, Danny Davito, Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Hugh Grant, Liv Tyler, and Tim Burton. And that's only 12 of the 50 portraits. 

click to dim the lights

My copy arrived last week and I am very pleased that Heisler's friends and his editor were successful in coaxing this book out of him. The result is a magnificent hard cover, coffee table sized book that is a marvel to leaf through and a photographer's dream to read. As described on the dust cover jacket, Heisler truly is a "photographer's photographer." If you spent one week digesting only one of the 50 fabulous images and their accompanying text  you would embark on a year-long learner's journey. Something to think about.

One of the outstanding features of 50 Portraits, apart from the images themselves, is that Heisler can write. I mean really write. The humanity of his high-profile subjects is presented in Heisler's story narrative, while his "Thoughts on Technique" provide a deeper look into the technical side of the photographer's identity. Every page contains quotable passages, which is as amazing as it is unusual. When he writes about light, Heisler's voice is rock steady and commanding in a gentle, yet firm tone. He explains that light gets softer as it gets closer to the subject (because the "rays begin to strike the subject from many different angles"). But he doesn't stop there, as he continues to explain that he prefers to feather his light - a technique that directs only the edges of the light onto the subject and throws the rest away. To me, it felt like I was listening to a portrait master, which is precisely what he is. Read in context, the meaning becomes clear until you feel and understand exactly what point he is making.

When you read the narrative that accompanies each of Heisler's portrait, it feels a bit as if you're having a beer with Heisler and just asked him to tell you about a particular image. Although he could have stopped with the back-story, as many photographers might have, each of his narrative is followed by a Thoughts on Technique section that goes much further into technique, process and experience. Heisler is a portrait master. One of the Thoughts on Technique that intrigued me was using a "shorter" lens (e.g., a 50mm ) to make a portrait. 

"There is an immediacy to portraits made with "shorter" lenses...these lenses require you to be physically closer to your subject. The dynamic changes. Engagement is unavoidable. The resulting portrait may be less traditionally pleasing, but it is a whole lot more interesting.


click to dim the lights


Admittedly...this is an image of my cat and I am not Gregory Heisler, but it does illustrate his point.

"The other thing that shorter-focal-length lenses do is enhance, or force, the sense of perspective in the picture. Close things seem closer; farther ones recede. The effect can be subtle or quite dramatic. In portraiture, it can be slightly unsettling or downright startling; it's a matter of degree."

If you are on a portrait vision quest, this book may help guide you. The rest, as always, is up to you.

Thanks for reading.

See ya next week,


Post Script - one more thing...all 50 portraits were captured on film. Bless his heart.

 "The Achilles' heel of digital photography is its handling of tonal transitions because it's a medium of absolutes, not in-betweens. It assigns whole numbers to tones without any fractional increments. Digital tones don't sli-i-i-ide into one another, they jump. Gray doesn't slide down a smooth ramp into black, it hops down the stairs, one discreet step at a time. Even if they are teeny-tiny steps, they're still steps." Gregory Heisler; 50 Portraits