Motivating the practical is a lighting term used in the movie industry. Internationally renowned portrait photographer Gregory Heisler defines motivating the practical one step further, his practicals are also the subjects of his iconic photographic portraits, which he brings to life with his technical mastery and innovative visual style.
With the help of Vistek, I had the opportunity to chat with Gregory Heisler before his sold-out Contact Photography Festival lecture in Toronto, Ontario.
Known for his captivating portraits of the world’s political elite, top celebrities, titians of business and other interesting people, I had to ask what it was like for him to create a portrait of not one, two or three people, but over 3000 at the finish line of the Boston Marathon for the 2014 cover photo of Sports Illustrated Boston Strong issue.
Part of Gregory Heisler’s success can be attributed to his creativity, technical skill and meticulous planning, which usually includes having a backup plan or two. We talked about what happened when Denzel Washington didn’t quite go for the plan and why Bruce Springsteen chuckled about his little squiggly cord – that didn’t work!
Gregory had a studio in Manhattan for over 30 years, which as he explained was used maybe half a dozen times for actual portrait sessions. The studio’s main purpose was to help him plan out his lighting scenarios–before he went on location. For example, he laid down a roll of paper on the floor and sketched out the exact light stand positions prior his session to photograph the President of the United States. As he recounted, the diagram was a valuable tool, and how it helped him when delays caused by security screening left him very little time to set-up in the White House.
Editorial portraiture work doesn’t always lend its self to preplanning. Gregory explained how you always have to be ready, because sometimes he would only get a few hours notice, like the time he was called at 10 a.m. to photograph film maker Michael Moore at 2:00 p.m., which was used on the cover of Time magazine a couple of days later. Or, the time scheduling issues gave him only a day to prepare for a session with New York Mayor Bloomberg.
Although I had seen many of Gregory’s photographs on the cover of magazines like: Time (over 70), Sports Illustrated, Esquire, GQ, Fortune and others; it was David Hobby’s blog Strobist that introduced me to the person responsible for those images. Through David Hobby’s blog posts and behind the scene (BTS’s) tutorials, I began to know who he was, and how well respected he is amongst his peers of other outstanding portrait photographers. As David Hobby recounted his experience lecturing and attending Gulf Photo Plus, GPP in Dubai, I got to watch video clips of Gregory in action in the GPP photo challenges.
I wished I could have talked with Gregory for hours, but in the end I only had a little over 40 minutes, but we got to chat about who made him nervous when he photographed them; getting banned from photographing the President of the United States; his start with legendary portrait photographer Arnold Newman and most importantly, his book published by Amphoto Books: Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits.
Gregory Heisler 50 Portraits recounts the stories behind a fraction of his work and his thoughts on the techniques used to create the images. I was curious with all of the powerful politicians, celebrities, business executives and other sports figures featured in the book, how the portrait of Luis Sarria, Muhammad Ali’s masseur and physical trainer was selected for the cover. Given the controversy surrounding OJ Simpson, I had to ask why he was included in the book.
If you have the opportunity, I would highly recommend attending one of the many workshops Gregory teaches. And I have to admit I have given some serious thought to registering in one of his classes at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University (it would only be a three hour commute for me)!
Thank you to Photo Kibitz contributor Paul Clarke, for photographing us prior to the interview.